The Heart Does Not Grow Back, the 2011 debut novel from Fred Venturini available in paperback from Picador November 4, begins as what would seem to be a realistic, almost conventional story of teenage angst, but it doesn’t take long for it to take an explosive turn into the realm of magical speculative fiction.
Dale Sampson, the central character of the novel, seems to be the typical teen outcast, the nerdy loner who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Although he is befriended by Mack Tucker, one of the school’s hotshot athletes and an outgoing ladies’ man, the friendship seems to do little for Dale’s ability to fit in. He doesn’t party. He lusts after girls, but can’t manage the courage to do anything about it. And when he finally does fall for a girl, Regina, the results are catastrophic, for him, for his friend Mack and for the girl.
Then the novel takes its turn. Dale, it turns out, is not quite your normal teenager, not by a long shot. Dale, it seems, has the power to regenerate his body parts, like a starfish – chop off a finger, grow a new one. In a horrific act of violence, Mack’s possible athletic future is ruined, the girl Dale has fallen for is killed, and Dale is horribly wounded, except that his wounds inexplicably cure themselves. It is a superpower that at first seems to make little difference in his depressing life. He is, if anything, still the lonely loser, indeed even lonelier than he had been before.
It is when, after some years of feeling sorry for himself, he comes across Regina’s twin sister now married to an abusive husband, that he begins to think about using his superpower to help her, and later to help others. Gradually the novel moves into the realm of absurdist fiction as Dale and Mack become involved with Hollywood and reality TV, dark government agencies and organ harvesting. What began as conventional teenage drama has morphed into a totally original tour de force.
Venturini skillfully manages to get the reader to suspend disbelief and buy into the conceit of his plot. It is not only the realistic treatment of the opening section, it is the emotionally honest creation of the characters. Dale and Mack and many of the assorted background characters that people the novel are not the clichés of genre fiction. They are complex, rounded characters who grow and develop as their story progresses. Moreover Venturini has created a fictional world in which they can believably exist, a world where the idea that a man’s organs can regenerate is not necessarily farfetched.
The Heart Does Not Grow Back, combining the elements of literary fiction in a plot straight out of science fiction, offers a reading experience if not unique, then certainly fascinating, and fascinating, to my mind, is better than unique.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1250052211]