BEF 2011/2 – The Heart Fails Without Warning [England]


The ordeal of the family dinner is something not soon forgotten, nor the guilt soon assuaged, by those families who count among their members a sufferer from an eating disorder.  The guilt that comes from the anger, the anger that comes from the frustration, the frustration that comes from not understanding why a few small potato chips (oven-baked! not even deep-fried!) are such an insurmountable obstacle, why the peas are haggled over until a compromise is reached: nine, and not a single one more.  Furtive sessions of high-intensity exercise, secreting uneaten food in clothes to be disposed of later: anorectics are masters of deception and subterfuge and it is only with time that one learns all their tricks.  They are skeletal prestidigitators performing the ultimate vanishing act.  But it’s not about the body, they will say.  It’s not about being thin.  It is, rather, all about control.

Hilary Mantel’s story The Hear Fails Without Warning is the seven-month chronicle in the life of a girl who has anorexia nervosa (though it is never named as such) and her family’s inability and unwillingness to treat it as anything more than the caprice of a young teenage girl, a phase to be grown out of.  Morna refuses to eat.  Her body, in time, will begin to shut down: her skin grows sallow and dry and covered in a fine down and bruises easily like a peach; the butterflies move from her stomach to her heart and there beat their wings; her hair dies and falls away.  Those butterflies, we are told by her doctor, will kill her, and her heart will fail without warning.  This failed heart becomes these failed hearts and the central theme of the story is revealed to be the dehumanizing effect of such wasting sicknesses.

Mantel is not concerned here with the psychological complexities of the mental illness.  We don’t even learn the cause, probable or actual, of Morna’s anorexia.  Instead she focuses on the physical aspects of the disease and the way that it affects an entire family, not just the afflicted themselves.  It is often said that it is not just a single person that suffers from anorexia nervosa, but also the family that cares for them.  This is the case with Morna’s family, though it is not with sympathy and compassion that they suffer, but rather with dismissive ignorance and resentment at the imposition that her illness places on them all.

Father is a taciturn man who was “always…no more than a shadow in their lives.”  His is a shallow understanding that amounts to no real understanding at all:

Calories in, calories out.  All she has to do is open her mouth and put the food in, then swallow.  Don’t tell me she can’t.  It’s a question of won’t.

He worked all the hours, he said, to keep the small house going, worrying about the mortgage and the car while all she worried about was her bloody waistline.

But he wouldn’t know what Morna worried about.  He has identified her problem as not wanting to be fat and fixed on that as the source of the family’s problems.

Mother is flippant and capricious and out of touch with Morna’s illness.  She is vapid and scatterbrained and not at all able to deal with the reality of her daughter’s sickness.

September: Lola asked for the carpet to be replaced in their room.  “Maybe we could have a wood floor?  Easier to clean up after her?”

Their mother said, “Don’t be silly.  She’s sick in the loo.  Isn’t she?  Mostly?”

November: One morning their mother caught Morna knocking back a jug of water before her weigh-in.  She shouted, “It can swell your brain!  It can kill you!”  She knocked the jug out of her daughter’s hand and it shattered all over the bathroom floor.

She said, “Oh, seven years’ bad luck.  No, wait.  That’s mirrors.”

But it is Morna’s sister, Lola, who says of her sister’s disappearing physique:

She was like a piece of science coursework…Soon she’d have no personhood left.  She’d be reduced to biology.

“Reduced to biology” is exactly what has happened to Morna, and in her complaints about the lanugo (the fine hair covering Morna’s face and lower back), her comparison of Morna with the unearthed skeleton of a four million year old woman, and sundry other shocking insensitivities (at times exceeding credibility for an eleven year old girl) frame Morna in an animalistic light that strips from her her individuality.

It is a paradox of the slowly vanishing sufferers of eating disorders that the smaller they become, the greater the spectacle they provide for unsympathetic and entirely misunderstanding spectators.

All year round Morna wore wool to protect her shoulders, elbows, hips, from the blows of the furniture, and to look respectably fat so that people didn’t point her out on the street

Morna’s condition is a source of embarrassment and shame, attracting the unwanted attention and judgments of the negatively critical.  Morna is not concerned with the “respectability” of her appearance, but her family is.  Her school has even forbidden Morna to return until she is back to a “normal” weight, lest the school’s “competitive ethos…lead to mass fatalities if the girls [decide] to compete with Morna,” as though the very pathological nature of her disease is contagious.  Calorie charts become the score card of some new, deadly sport.  This tendency to spectacle that such physically destructive diseases exhibit also has the unfortunate consequence of dehumanizing the sufferer.  Morna disappears beneath the invisible weight of her condition, she is smothered, swaddled in the pity of strangers.  This dehumanization of Morna is skilfully portrayed by Mantel’s use of a canine motif.  It is a motif that begins innocuously in Lola’s wanting a dog, but that culminates in the discovery of a pornographic image on Father’s computer, the image of a naked woman on all fours, collared, and skinny

…like a whippet.  Her body was stark white.  Her face was blurred and wore no readable human expression.  You couldn’t recognise her.  She might be someone you knew.

You couldn’t recognise her.  She might be someone you knew.  Morna becomes someone who looks like Morna, that daughter Mother and Father used to have, that sister that Lola used to have, until she was replaced by this creature, until she began her metamorphosis into the skinny creature that she is now, complete with fur and a slat-ribbed chest.  And all that make Morna who she is as a person, her heart and soul and mind, all of the intangibilities of her individuality are submerged beneath the visible outline of her pelvis and scapula and skull, the skeleton becomes the person, the part becomes the whole.  In the end, if she is able to disappear, to perform that magic vanishing act, it is only because of the smoke screen that her family throws up about her.  And this is how their hearts fail her.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.


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