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June 11, 2020

The Heart Beats in Secret, by Katie Munnik

There is a convention to covers of books by women, and the cover for Cardiff-based Canadian Katie Munnik’s debut novel The Heart Beats in Secret fits that bill. A woman shot from behind, a dress to suggest the domestic, the house in the distance—and even the title with its secret. A reader might think that they’ve read this book before…but stay with me. What if I told you that Munnik considers among the essential literary companions in her creation of this book not only Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, but Basho’s haiku? Or that the house in the distance on the cover is haunted by a wild goose?

Not literally haunted, of course, because the goose is living, and Pidge, who has inherited the house on the east coast of Scotland after her grandmother’s death, discovers it in the kitchen. Which makes it difficult for her to perform the task at hand, namely to get the house cleaned out and ready to sell before she heads back to her home in Canada. But then the goose is not the sole distraction—there is a relationship back in Ottawa that Pidge seems ambivalent about, plus the potential for secrets to be discovered amongst her grandmother’s things, for questions to be finally answered.

The narrative moves between Pidge in 2006; her grandmother Jane in 1940 who has just wed a husband who has gone to war, new to a village where she knows no one; and Jane’s daughter, Pidge’s mother, a nurse who immigrates to Montreal during the later 1960s and becomes part of a community supporting midwifery in the Quebec wilderness, arriving at motherhood also along the way. Each of them women venturing into the unknown, connected to each other, but also on her own, a pioneer. Their narratives far from nesting dolls, fitting into one another tidily, but something very different. As Munnik writes in her Launchpad post on 49thShelf, “Because my story plays with the shifting sands of family memory, I discovered I could play with non-chronological detailing, letting the characters and reader learn about events or motivations in different orders…In that way, writing a novel could be like writing a poem.”

This story is slow and quiet, an altogether pleasant read, but this also makes the novel’s interestingness easy to undermine. The strange ways that the three narratives fit together, the inherent mystery in the text, that the answers never turned out to be what I thought they were going to be. For a story so entrenched in the domestic, it’s really not conventional in the slightest. And the storyline of Jane during WW2 was especially resonant to me as I read it during our own anxious times:

“It feels close to the end now, but the end of my tether or the end of the world, I can’t know.”

One thought on “The Heart Beats in Secret, by Katie Munnik”

  1. Diane says:

    The non chronological narrative may have similarities to A Prayer for Travelers, but I’ll have to read this one to find out.

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