With every new book by an author I hold in high esteem, the expectations are equally high. So you can imagine the thrill when I heard of a new unexpected title by Ki Longfellow: Houdini
Heart. All over the internet I read nothing but raving reviews, so this was going to be fun. I was in for many wonderful hours in that place of utmost beauty and deeper meaning whereto this
writer somehow always manages to lure me. That this book was labeled 'horror' didn't scare me the least.
After some 30 pages I didn't know what to think of it, really. This is nothing serious and happens to me all the time, but when I closed the book after 244 pages I still had no idea. The only thing I knew for sure was that this book doesn't belong in the horror-section. At least not what I've always imagined horror to be. Sure, there are elements of that genre in Houdini Heart, like bloody murders, contact with ghosts, cannibalism, a haunted house with hidden rooms, but nowhere did I feel that the writer was using that to scare the wits out of me. All these horrible events serve another purpose. Not a moment did I experience horror. If this book per se needs to labeled, I'd call it Literature, with a captial L. The story is solid as a rock, there are many layers and deeper meanings, it is composed in a language of its own and consists of many beautiful elements.
The book starts off with the question what absolute reality really is, followed instantly by the conclusion that "Reality, pure or impure, certain or uncertain, is an illusion." The story unfolds in a surrealistic atmosphere in which the reader has no clue whether the written events are taking place for real or if it's all hapening in the imagination of the main character. Some scenes are set within actual existing movies, by Hitchcock amongst others.
Somewhere the main character is named as 'Louise Brooks', but that may well be an alias. She, a reasonably succesfull writer, spouse to a famous Hollywood actor, hides away from the world in a house where she spent part of her childhood: River House in Little Sokoki, Vermont. Her mission is plain simple: write one last story to be remembered by, then commit suicide.
Her only sustenance is wine, water, vodka and 'nuts and seeds'. She tries in vain to write something on her laptop that will last. It is quite obvious she's on the run from the dramatic events in the near past, that have put her on this cul-de-sac. The real turning point being the unfortunate death of her three year old daugher, Kate. Since that event, Louise became entangled with feelings of guilt, impotence, anger, grief, like the escapologist Harry Houdini let himself be entangled by chains and cuffs. Although Kate's death was not her doing, she blames herself nonetheless. Whatever it will take, she will escape from this, even it that means escaping from this life. "I want to be where Kate is and if that's nowhere, then nowhere sounds like heaven to me." Five weeks after Kate's death another dramatic event takes place, which preludes her flight to River House.
There she occasionally manages to write something that could become her last story. But everytime she starts her laptop her writing seems to have disappeared. During her half hallucionary ramblings of the mind, where past and present constantly switch places, she is often disturbed by an elderly woman who walks past her door, banging it. As time passes this woman, whom we never get to see nor hear, becomes younger, until at the end of the book she is about the same eternal age as Kate.
Louise quotes many times from her first book, The Windigo's Daughter. According to legend the Windigo is a mythological creature, a bad spirit with cannibal intents. It can take possession over people. The writer identifies herself obviously with this daughter, from the title, who is called Faye. Faye marries Mr. Honig in a world of myth, where bees play an important part. Bees, by the way, are all over this book. Houdini Heart is constructed out of many elements such as the above mentioned. All of them seperately odd and seemingly with no meaning, but combined together they become coherent. Everything we read, every word, has meaning.
In the end it's all about 'Louise Brooks' finding her home – which goes for Faye as well – whereever that may be, or whatever that may mean. The apotheosis of this book is completely set in an illusionary, surrealistic, hallucinatory atmosphere. All by herself the writer attempts to imitate one of Houdini's most famous escape-acts. The reader will have to find out for himself if she manages to escapes from her almost unmoveable shackles.
By leafing through this book once more during the writing of this reading experience, it finally dawned on me what I think of it. It is an immaculate composition like Jeroen Brouwers builds in our own Dutch language. Everything, up to the comma's, is part of the whole and cannot be taken away. An other writer that came to mind while reading Houdini Heart, is Paul Auster. His stories also have this surrealism, where the dividing line between reality and illusion is enticingly thin.
Once more I have the greatest admiration of the artistic abilities of Ki Longfellow. To be able to write such a complex book, more or less as an in-between, shows her quality as a writer. It is not an easy book, and for people who want to understand everything – like myself – it can cause sleeplessness. Not because of its horror, but because of its many hidden layers and meanings.
What I find beautiful as well is that Ki Longfellow allowed herself to write this work that is so utterly different from her other work. On her blog she writes that this book simply presented itself to her and demanded to be written. Any publisher would strongly advise her to reconsider. Fortunately, being the co-founder of her publisher Eio Books, she has only to anwer to herself. In publishing this book she shows herself as a headstrong and free artist. I bow to that.
But may I also voice my very strong anticipation of the third part of the Gnosis-trilogy: The Woman Who Knew The All?