Book review: The May Lives of Heloise Starchild by John Ironmonger

The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild – John Ironmonger

Following his wonderfully life-affirming view of the apocalypse in the delightful Not Forgetting the Whale – a situation that we can much more readily identify with and a reassurance that is very much needed in these pandemic times – John Ironmonger returns to a similar theme of an individual with extraordinary memory abilities that was there in his first novel The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder. Here, in The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild, it’s not just a catalogue of all the experiences gathered over 20 years of a life, but a far more expansive look at life and experience gathered across several tumultuous centuries.

The experiences of eight lifetimes no less are all inherited by Katya Němcová, a young girl living on a farm in the Slovak mountains. It’s a ‘gift’ that has been passed down from mother to daughter across several generations, the memories stretching back to a French noblewoman Heloise Montbelliard born in 1759 during an appearance of Halley’s comet, who died during the French Revolution. Her memories – more like vividly real lived experiences – and the accumulated memories of each of her female line descendants have been passed down from mother to daughter, giving an expansive view of the changes and experiences of many women across the centuries, across many countries.

Rather than Heloise Starchild being a clever David Mitchell Cloud Atlas-like folding in and overlapping of stories, John Ironmonger appears to be much more interested in the line of history and human experience; extraordinary human experience living through troubled times and – as far as the women of Heloise Montbelliard’s line are concerned – living under several oppressive regimes. It’s a theme that is evident in some of the author’s books but considering the greater scope of history, time is also very much a factor in The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild. Time doesn’t so much heal – at least not from Katya’s perspective as she has all the pains of the past tied up in her – but it gives her a unique perspective to see things change over time. And over such long periods even great rivers can change course.

Essentially then this – and the somewhat clever narrative device of Heloise Montbeillard’s hidden treasure waiting to be discovered – offers some measure of hope when otherwise The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild could otherwise be very bleak reading. The experiences recounted during the French Revolution and the terror of the guillotine, the Napoleonic wars, Nazi atrocities on Slovak villages, Russian tanks invading Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, are all are lived through from Heloise to Katya’s family line. How are we supposed to grasp and learn from the accumulated knowledge of these experiences? Are those events doomed to fall into the past, be erased and forgotten if we don’t have the Gift to remember them?

Sometimes you have to experience hardship and difficulty in order to see and appreciate what is important, and you don’t need the ability to live past lives in order to consider where we are today. Sometimes a little nudge or reminder is needed though and John Ironmonger’s The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild does that beautifully, intelligently, sensitively and meaningfully, exploring the big questions in a meaningful and relatable way, helping us see the bigger picture even in the midst of a crisis. That’s no small thing either.


Updated: Jul 20, 2020

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