The Many Lives Of Heloise Starchild by John Ironmonger (book review).

December 19, 2021 | By | Reply More

‘The Many Lives Of Heloise Starchild’ is fundamentally the story about the experiences of women through a line of matrilineal descent. Think of something like ‘Wild Swans’ but rather than biography, it’s fiction, with the literary device used being a paranormal gift that allows each girl or woman to access the memories of her forbears.

Each chapter is a period in time, starting with France around the time of the Revolution, through 20th century Europe and America to present day England and into the future.

Writer John Ironmonger doesn’t lay out his story in a linear manner, though, but skips back and forth, throwing the incompletely-told events of one chapter into some sort of relief in the next. As a technique, it works well, making what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward story into one that requires a level of engagement, even inquiry, to fully comprehend. The chapters are snapshots, really, of the lives of young women in each of the periods of time described.

Halley, one of the present day into near future incarnations, experiences life in a dystopian version of Britain where certain contemporary trends, like social credit, are extrapolated to logical, if unpleasant, conclusions. Her desire to leave this grim version of the UK for a more enlightened Europe mirrors the life of earlier characters, such as the titular Heloise, who lived through the French Revolution and died in the Terror that came afterwards.

When she dies, she has been brutally abused and raped and, in a final horrific revelation, we learn that she dies eight-months pregnant by the gaoler who kept her imprisoned. Another story involves Katya, a young Czech woman living through the Soviet invasion and occupation, and another Marianne, who dies shortly after giving birth to a daughter on the streets of Salzburg during the Napoleonic wars.

While Ironmonger doesn’t hold back on damning the generations of men who have consistently mistreated and dehumanised women and girls throughout history, there are elements of tenderness, even hope, interwoven into the story.

Crucially, the women themselves are not always victims: Marianne is the instrument of her mother’s revenge and Katya escapes the Iron Curtain and becomes the person she wants to be. Equally, not all the men are misogynistic predators, many are quite ordinary and some brave and helpful. There’s humour and adventure, too, and the author has taken great pains to ensure the historical elements are plausible.

Describing ‘The Many Lives Of Heloise Starchild’ as a piece of feminist literature is hard given it’s written by a man, but it is certainly uniquely sympathetic to the female perspective on history while remaining engaging and easy to read. Warmly recommended.

Neale Monks

December 2021

(pub: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021. 288 page hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-29760-824-0)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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