Not Your Heart Away steals its title from Housman’s poem, A Shropshire Lad. The poem had two main themes, the idolization and mythology of the English countryside and sound advice to a young man, to give not his heart away so young, advice which Ben, the late teenage narrator ignores as any young man should.
The book is set in 1980 or thereabouts. A distant time now; a period teetering on the brink of monumental change at a personal and national level to all of which Ben was almost totally oblivious.
Along with his girlfriend Theresa, school-friends Liz and Peter and more distant, contemporarily more desirable (read ‘richer’ in proto-Thatcherite Britain) friends Claire and Poppy, Ben is stuck between adulthood and childhood, school and university, home and something much stranger, much more desirable. The small town girlfriend is going nowhere, Peter’s going to work, Liz is going to university, Poppy to Drama School if she can convince anyone to let her in and Claire, the girl he doesn’t think he can get, is about to fall off a cliff as her secure, affluent world implodes in the wake of her parents’ wife-swapping disaster and the first of a long line of bankruptcies that underscored the Thatcher revolution.
Nothing out of the ordinary really happens. The group of friends drives to see a play and avoid a car crash on the way. They have a lust-charged picnic on the river then eat dinner in a restaurant, struggling not only with the menu but with the fact that the nice old man at the bar was a Nazi when he was their age. Ben can’t stop looking at Claire all through the theatre performance; the real reason he arranged the trip in the first place.
He learns about the summer job that will take her away from him during the drive back. After totally failing to recognise a nice middle-class girl’s way of offering herself on a plate Ben arranges a trip to London on an errand and accidentally-on-purpose gets off with Claire’s best friend. Moping about back in Wiltshire and trying to convince Liz that he’s going to be a famous writer Ben’s world explodes again when he discovers Claire not 5,000 miles away as he thought but sitting in the back room of a pub drunk, half-mad with rage, a U.S. deportation notice and the keys of a stolen Aston-Martin in her bag.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s true, so long as you believe it is
It’s a tale of country pubs that no longer exist, some drinking, driving and drug-taking that nowadays might bring a smile of indulgence to the lips of the most hardened front-line police officer, of blue remembered hills and myths. At the same time the book is a requiem for lost love, lost songs and lost times. Ben finally gets the girl but really should have asked himself if that was going to be the best thing; when he loses her again all too easily in a world devoid of Google and Facebook and mobile phones the rest of his life becomes a morass of blame and regret as each successive partner fails the Claire-test.
It’s probably not their fault, not even a bit as Ben says, but they still just aren’t Claire. Ultimately, thanks to Liz, Ben’s oldest friend of all, he finds her again. But Claire is a continent away, her old house is now a hotel, Liz and Ben have some talking to do that can’t be put off much longer and Claire’s son bears a strange resemblance to someone Ben sees every morning when he shaves. The past is another country. They do things differently there. But Ben’s problem is that he never really left.
You can buy it here: Not Your Heart Away.