The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keaney


I’m not trying to make out that I was innocent. You don’t grow up innocent in Limehouse. But I was ignorant. I saw things but I didn’t always know what they meant.

Brian Keaney writes beautifully, the sentences can have you smiling, cringing or gagging in disgust. I felt like I was Anne, stepping over oysters of spit (yuck), choking back the rotten smell of men, forced into a life of prostitution. Anne was by far the best character in this novel, how could Thomas de Quincy not fall in love with her? Anne’s mother is scraping by to keep them alive, but everything just gets more bleak, more so when her mother takes up with a dangerously cruel man, Harold Lampton (who carried his anger around with him everywhere he went, nursing it like a baby and feeding it with little tidbits of grievance,). It isn’t long before he poisons her innocence, and in this world and time, women didn’t have much chance to fight such men. In time, she escapes to a life, while not better, at least one she can be free of Harold. Anne and Thomas live in completely different worlds, Anne makes her living in the underbelly, Thomas is as sheltered and pristine as a proper man should be in the 1800’s. But some mysterious things happen to his own murdered sister, some sort of ‘punishment’ for not obeying? So just how ‘safe’ was his surroundings? Bucking at the life he feels confines him, he is ousted into the streets where Anne comes to his rescue. The London he now finds himself in, with scratching rats and violent strangers is nothing he could ever prepare for.  The young man, one day to become a famous author, is a nervous, innocent youth before he falls for Anne. She comes to his rescue one night. Hope against hope they will last, but reality loves nothing better than to separate unfit lovers. Not before she takes the ‘bewildered’ Thomas home and nurses him to health with laudanum. “The cure for every pain and sorrow.” There is a magic in that “angel kiss” of laudanum. That isn’t all she gives him, though. He discovers many delights in Anne. That she could be loved by a poet, a man from a finer world, when she lived with vulgarity all her life, finally loved like a lady and not just a ‘street girl’- could it be? Could it really be?

Tuah is the third character, a slave taken abroad a ship, learning all horrors of man and that things can be worse, even from the pits of hell, there is always worse. He later is sold to a ship captain that becomes his future salvation. Both he and Anne are tied to Archie, a man who once read to Anne after a terrible incident.  For Anne, the words do their healing, especially for an uneducated girl like her. Archie is a man of literature, which holds a special magic for Thomas, Tuah and Anne alike. The wheels of fate turn as it throws these three children about, each slaves to different lives, and tosses them into a fractured adulthood.

It isn’t a love story, and it is. While the rot of men and the world steals Anne’s innocence, somehow she still remains pure in some distant way. This was a hell of a novel! There wasn’t a boring moment, and the historical aspect felt genuine. There is no romanticizing about this time period, there is so much grim and grit that you know how bad things were for the unfortunate. I could smell the rot, tremble at the horrors, and warm at any token of kindness tossed Anne’s way. Three narrators delight the reader through the entirety of the novel, which is much like living in their shoes.

Publication Date: November 16, 2017

Holland House




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