:: Article

A Pitch-Black, Elemental Tale

By Karl Whitney


Heidi James, Carbon, Blatt Books, 2009

Heidi James’s bleakly comic debut novel has an interesting structure: for its first half, a first person narration by a woman called Patricia is intercut with a third person narration about a woman called Pearl. The former is set in the present; the latter in postwar England. Both settings are described elliptically, a small indication of the subtlety with which atmosphere is evoked in this novel.

In addition to publishing a number of essays and short stories in a variety of publications, including here at 3:AM, and publishing a novella, The Mesmerist’s Daughter, James also runs the publisher Social Disease Books. As a full length novel, however, Carbon represents a first for James.

As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that both of Carbon’s central characters are related: Pearl is Patricia’s grandmother. In a series of brief chapters, Pearl’s burgeoning relationship with a mysterious European suitor is sketched. The elegant scenes involving Pearl are in sharp contrast to Patricia’s boozily threadbare existence.

Patricia has moved in to her grandparents’ empty house after Pearl’s death, and spends her time shuffling around the house wearing her grandmother’s clothes, inviting friends over to drink bottles of vodka and eat Chinese food and shagging her moronic younger boyfriend. In one memorable and vividly sketched scene which ends with an act of anal fisting, she and her friend Salome, a dominatrix, bring an ultimately unfortunate barman home to the house, then have an increasingly violent threesome.

As the novel progresses, Pearl’s story is overtaken by Patricia’s. Patricia attends Pearl’s cremation, which is accompanied by the sounds of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – Patricia has brought the CD, which she instructs the officials in the crematorium to play.

There is black comedy here, but there is also a dark rage at the inheritance imposed upon Patricia by her forebears. This rage is partly expressed through her anger at her grandmother – of her grandmother’s funeral, she says, ‘Time to begin the end of her and the start of me.’ Along with this rage goes an overpowering desire to return to some imagined, almost aristocratic, past: ‘what I long for is a return to the rarefied world that I sprang from’, Patricia says.

The stark materialism of Patricia’s life – the shitting, the fucking, the puking, the drinking – is posited as a riposte to Pearl’s supposed refinement and class. Ultimately, however, Patricia attempts to get her revenge through selling off the family jewels, severing the cord that links her to her past while making piles of cold hard cash into the bargain.

Patricia’s attempt to sell these jewels unintentionally reveals the truth about her grandparents, and about the fictionality of her own family’s history. The final chapter shifts gear significantly, integrating a wider background of environmental catastrophe that has percolated throughout the novel. The shift in tone is unnerving, but effective.

At times, the novel seems ready to go in a couple of directions – not least of all, the gothic. Patricia’s solitary existence in her grandmother’s house, wearing her grandmother’s old clothes, hints that she is about to actually become her grandmother. ‘I am shorter’, one chapter begins – and it seems that she is slowly settling in to a routine uncannily close to that of Pearl. But this fictional potentiality soon unravels, or is overcome by Patricia, and before long she’s liberating her inheritance from a bank-vault and planning to amass the fortune she believes is rightfully hers.

The severity of Carbon is leavened by its persistent black humour. Patricia’s narrative voice – narcissistic, resolutely unempathetic and unfailingly dry – sets the tone of the novel, and its ironic engagement with the bleakest aspects of existence makes it darkly addictive.


Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 12th, 2009.