Stephanie Karaolis's Reviews > Black Heart Blue

Black Heart Blue by Louisa Reid
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Aug 15, 12

Read from June 20 to 22, 2012

One of the best debut novels I’ve read, Black Heart Blue is a heartbreaking, beautifully-told and haunting read.

The story is narrated by twin sisters Hephzibah and Rebecca, but we find out at the very beginning that Hephzibah has died. Her chapters narrate ‘before’, while Rebecca’s narrate ‘after’ as she learns to live without her sister.

Hephzi and Rebecca are the daughters of a village preacher and his wife. They have been home-schooled their whole lives, and don’t have much of a life outside the church until finally, after much persuasion, the girls’ parents allow them to go to college. Hephzi, beautiful and vibrant, embraces this chance at ‘normality’ and makes friends easily. For Rebecca, disfigured due to Treacher Collins syndrome and often abandoned by her sister, adjusting to this new life is not so easy. Through the first part of the book, it seems that Hephzi is the stronger twin and that Rebecca is weak, needy and dependent on her sister.

However, we discover very early on that there’s much more to their relationship. Behind closed doors, the preacher and his wife are neglectful and abusive parents. All Hephzi and Rebecca have is each other. For me, the big shock was when Hephzi discovers Facebook, Glee and Eastenders: up until that point, I’d subconsciously assumed that this story was set in the past. Rationally, I know this kind of tragic situation occurs all too often, but these starkly up-to-date references still gave me a start.

Hephzi and Rebecca are very different characters, but both very ‘real’. Rebecca appears more complex, perhaps because more chapters are narrated by her, but that complexity is also in her nature I think. We come to understand that she may be the quieter and physically weaker of the twins, but really she is strong – stronger than either she or Hephzi recognises. Rebecca is lost and alone without her sister, but it becomes clear that actually she can survive; whether the same would be true of Hephzi had the roles been reversed is doubtful.

Both Rebecca’s disfigurement and the abuse suffered by the girls are handled with great care by Louisa Reid. She doesn’t skirt around these issues, but nor does she confront the reader with them by putting them front and centre. Apparently Black Heart Blue is marketed as a young adult novel (there is a separate edition with a different cover for these readers), no doubt in part because of this gentle treatment of quite harrowing issues.

I can’t speak highly enough of this book. It’s incredibly sad – certain things are hinted at again and again, but you don’t want to admit what you’ve worked out must be the case until Rebecca confirms it. Louisa Reid achieves a balance between darkness and hope, resulting in a haunting tone that reminds me of Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry (coincidentally also about twin sisters) and that makes this the kind of book that stays with you for days beyond the last page.

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