The Artisan Heart
I have just finished reading ‘The Artisan Heart’ by Dean Mayes. It’s a contemporary romance set mostly in the country Victoria town of Walhalla. It is Dean’s fourth novel. I should reveal that I’ve met Dean at Adelaide writers’ events, in various pubs, and he is a thoroughly nice guy! (On this blog I have briefly reviewed his previous novel, ‘The Recipient’, which is a thriller with subtle supernatural elements.)
I was very pleased to be able to get a signed advanced copy (not a freebie, by the way), even though romance is not a genre that I would normally read.
The novel opens in dramatic fashion with a betrayal, followed by a violent confrontation in the emergency room at Adelaide hospital. The damaged protagonist returns to where he grew up. He seeks shelter in a familiar place and with old family friends, but must also confront old pain and loss. The romance at the core of the story grows slowly, but steadily, before the dramatic interventions of previous partners threaten to ruin everything.
One of the novel’s strengths, which it shares with ‘The Recipient’, is how it makes you care strongly for the characters, so strongly that I am reminded of novels by Neville Shute. The two main characters are strong. They are sympathetically drawn, but they are not without their faults, they carry scars from past relationships and they did not get on so well in the past. These factors and many others mean that they are fully and satisfyingly realised on the page – and in the mind’s eye.
The cast of supporting characters is also vividly drawn, some at more length than others, but always to good effect on the plot and this reader. The disability of a key supporting character is sensitively dealt with, heightening the sense of peril at times, but without being patronizing or clichéd. The town of Walhalla and the surrounding hills also play their part and are well presented. The slightly claustrophobic small town is hemmed in by the mountains, forming a cauldron for the romance and drama. Economic use of description adds realism and atmosphere without getting in the way.
Dean adds his medical knowledge into the mix and several twists that stop the romantic story arc becoming predictable or too comfortable. All these elements – plot, characters, setting, description and so on – are skilfully combined into a satisfying whole.
As I said at the start I would not normally read a romance, and this book is quite different from Dean’s previous novel. Nevertheless, I was very pleasantly surprised and thoroughly enjoyed it. Every time I thought I knew what was going to happen next Dean brought another element to the fore and kept me anxiously reading right to the end. Thus fed and entertained, I shall be more open-minded in my future reading!