Greek myth tells us of the young maiden Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, who was abducted by Hades while out playing in the fields with her companions one day. Hades takes the girl to his underworld realm and makes her his bride, while above ground her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest, searches in anguish for her lost daughter, pleading for Persephone to be returned to her. When she learns that Zeus has conspired in Persephone’s fate, she refuses to let anything flower or fruit until her daughter is freed from Hades. Persephone is eventually returned so that her mother may restore balance to the world, but as she was tricked by her husband into eating his realm’s food, she is condemned to spend each winter as queen of the underworld, with her return to Earth each spring signalling the time that Demeter will bring life and colour back to the world. In Morgan McCarthy’s new book, The Outline of Love, we are given, if not a reworking, then certainly a parallel story that is broken up into ten parts, each preceded by a piece of the myth that creates a spine of structure throughout the text.
McCarthy gives us Persephone Triebold, a lonely teenager living in a remote house in the Scottish highlands with her father, Evan. Persephone’s mother Sylvia died when she was just four, causing her father to retreat into a cocoon of anxiety, terrified that his daughter will also be taken away from him. She was promptly removed from all prospective dangers – school, travel, other people – to grow into a woman unschooled in the ways of love and friendship. Persephone notes that the people in the nearest town view her with suspicion, with her strange, foreign name and her life apart; she notes that in a previous age she was the sort of woman who would likely have been accused of being a witch. We join Persephone on the eve of her leaving her isolation to head to King’s College, London, to begin a degree in management (although she is unsure of what she actually wants to manage). Regarding other local people who have left their rural bubble, she equates distance with ambition, and London appears to be the furthest away she can reasonably get.
Arriving at her shared student house, Persephone quickly morphs into one of those ghastly, immature students who have no interest in studying and so try their hardest to ensure those living around them can’t do it either. She drinks heavily, stays out late, forms noisy friendships, and behaves with utter selfishness and disregard for her worried father. It is therefore something of a surprise when she takes on a period of work experience during her first Christmas holiday and forms a friendship with a twenty-something editor that she seems to have little in common with. Stranger still, when she finds out that he edits the work of Leo Ford, a former indie guitarist turned literary darling, who Persephone quickly starts to obsess over. She abandons her drunken University friends to take up with Leo’s drunken circle and begins her pursuit of him. As a handsome, wealthy, witty and successful man she seems to have finally found someone worthy of her love; there is just the small matter of the incident in Leo’s past that seems unsavoury but which no one seems to know the full details of…
Two things struck me about this book; firstly that it is beautifully written, and secondly that for all the great idea of basing a story around a modern day Persephone in the celebrity underworld, I’m not convinced that this was a story worth telling. The Outline of Love starts out well with opening scenes in the highlands; the descriptions of scenery and mood, and the strong sympathy you felt for such a lonely girl isolated by her well-meaning father from civilisation work well. After the move to London, the novel gradually went downhill for me. While the prose remained very strong, Persephone changed from becoming someone that felt real and likeable, to someone that annoyed me (because I have lived with people who behaved like her and it is no fun at all) to someone that eventually didn’t feel in any way real. Events become further and further removed from anything I could recognise as reality and it all sort of fizzled out in the end rather than providing the solid conclusion I was expecting.
I expect this story might appeal to many other readers, but it was not really for me – although I admire any writer who can make me stop mid-page to admire their use of language.
The Outline of Love by Morgan McCarthy
Published by Tinder Press, October 2013
With thanks to Tinder Press for providing me with this review copy.
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