The opening pages of Hole in the Heart are some of the most frightening, tense and gut-wrenching pages you’ll probably ever read. It’s a real heart-in-the-mouth opening, one that forces you to keep turning the page, one that locks you so far into the characters’ heads that you might find yourself lip-biting or knuckle-pulling. And this isn’t a book about crime or horror; it’s a book about something much more palpable. It’s about birth and parenthood – specifically, finding out your baby has Down Syndrome and what that might mean.
There is nothing quite like Hole in the Heart. A graphic memoir by Henny Beaumont, the story of Beth’s birth and childhood is told with an honestly that is brutal, brave and incredibly powerful. There are funny moments (that mostly come from the completely charming Beth), and there are saddening moments. Henny’s monochrome artwork is bold and dark, verging at times into the chaotic, at others into the calm. It’s visually striking; as an artist and portrait painter, Henny’s characters’ faces are almost photo-realistic at times, and her sketchy drawings of North London are so familiar it’s as though you standing there with her and Beth. Sometimes the pages are full of detail, sometimes they are bare. It’s an interesting medium through which to tell a story like this, and one that works really, really well.
The struggles and victories Henny, Beth and their family go through create a story that’s unforgettable. I generally think of myself as a fairly contained person. I don’t really cry at sad things (although I’m a sucker for pride), and I’ve been called ‘hard’ a fair few times. But it’s actually impossible to read Hole in the Heart without a total crossfire of feelings. From the fear and dread Henny and her husband experience when discovering Beth’s diagnosis (which is a furious-making event – never has the joke about a doctor’s rubbish bedside manner been so true), to the question of how to tell their other children that their new sister has Downs, to deciding how to integrate Beth into their community, Hole in the Heart opens up a vital discussion about how people threat those with disabilities. The first hurdle comes from Henny herself, who wonders how she’ll love her daughter. This, in itself, is a brave confession, and one you don’t often hear when disabilities are publically talked about. Then there is Henny’s fear that the people she sees on the street are talking about her baby. There is the fear that Beth won’t make it through the open heart surgery she needs to have to fix the hole in her heart. There is the fear of having to constantly, relentlessly protect her and make sure she survives. Henny deals with all these issues without sugar-coating anything, with a bluntness that is glaring and very human.
All the while, as Henny grows through her personal struggles, you are watching Beth grow into a witty, mischievous and utterly lovable kid, one that is completely adored by her siblings. From her love for Justin ‘Beaver’ to her fondness for crisps, she charms you completely. There are shocking moments when the people you think should understand Beth’s needs (like her teachers) completely let her down, and other moments when people you’re expecting to be cruel completely surprise you.
To me, Hole in the Heart is a vital read. Not just because it’s a powerful story, or a wonderful graphic memoir, but because it’s super important in the debate about privilege, about disability, about family. It helps open discussions about how society is failing those with disabilities, about what we are doing right, and about what we can do better. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and won’t be forgetting it in a hurry. Plus, there’s Beth, who is just an absolute joy.
Be sure to keep your eyes on the blog next week when we’ll be interviewing Henny about Hole in the Heart.
And if you happen to be at the Stoke Newington Literary festival this weekend, go and listen to Henny talk on Sunday 5th at midday.
Hole in the Heart: Bringing up Beth is published on 9 June by Myriad Editions (£16.99, Paperback, 288 pages, 9781908434920)