Book Review: Houdini Heart by Ki Longfellow

Houdini HeartTitle: Houdini Heart
Author: Ki Longfellow
First Published: 2011
Rating: 5/5 (Originally, I gave it a 4, for my lack of enthusiasm for the ending.  But the longer I think about it, the more the ending feels right, making this a solid 5.)
Challenges:  TBR Pile

Where does grief end and madness begin?  What is the boundary between reality and fiction?  How much are our creations a part of us?  Can we face our deepest pain and fear before they devour us?   The narrator/protagonist of Houdini Heart must face all of these conundrums and more as she explores both the innermost recesses of her own psyche as well as the many potential shades of meaning behind the word “haunting.”

I first learned of Ki Longfellow in 2005 when her book The Secret Magdalene was published.  But the first book of hers I read was 2009’s Flow Down Like Silver, a brilliant historical fiction concerning the life of Hypatia of Alexandria.  Since then, anything Longfellow writes goes immediately on my to-read list, regardless of genre.

Houdini Heart couldn’t be more different from Flow Down Like Silver in setting, tone or theme, yet both books are brilliant.  HH falls somewhere between psychological study and Gothic horror.  On the surface, this is the tale of a female author in a writing slump who has recently been through a series of traumas in which she lost both her husband – a famous and charismatic Hollywood A-lister who is also a chronic alcoholic – and her young daughter.  She retreats to  lick her wounds in a place that fascinated her during her (difficult, bohemian) childhood – a historic home that spent many years as a hotel which played host to many celebrities, including a number of horror authors, and is currently languishing as shabby rooms-for-rent.   She has determined to write one last book, after which she will end her own life.  But none of her plans go as expected or intended.  As the days wear on, her internal landscape begins to unravel, and it becomes harder and harder for her – or the reader – to discern what is real, what is imagined, what is remembered and what might even be fiction.  She sinks inexorably into an alcohol- and grief-infused miasma of madness.

Because of this precarious state, our narrator is highly unreliable, but just how much so only becomes evident as the story progresses.  Presented in a first-person, familiar and conversational tone – often through journaling, note-making, brainstorming or internal musing about her writing and her life – her story draws the reader in, sparking our empathy, horrifying us even as we can’t bring ourselves to abandon her in such a state.  For me, it was like watching a friend caught in a self-destructive spiral which I am powerless to stop.  Longfellow’s emotional wizardry is impressive.  Additionally, there may or may not be anything supernatural at play here – we can only try to deduce what is really going on.  Longfellow suggests potentials; she doesn’t make definitive statements as to the truth behind her narrative.  I loved the ambiguous, mutable nature of the story.  Different readers might well say there were reading completely different books, based on their personal perceptions and interpretations.  This is a book that begs re-reading and would be great for a mature discussion group.

Houdini Heart has been compared to the films of David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock and to the literary works of several authors, including Lovecraft, Poe, Shirley Jackson and Steven King, as well as specifically to The Yellow Wallpaper and House of Leaves, and I can raise no argument against such comparisons.  These authors are mentioned by name several times during the narrative, in addition to Harry Houdini and the Wendigo legends.  There are musings or metaphorical engagements on creativity, inspiration, aging, memory, marriage, parenthood, addiction, bitterness, longing, complacency, abuse, fame, architecture, small towns, love, hate, guilt, revenge, facing fears, running away and many other Big Themes, including those of an archetypal or mythic nature.  Oftentimes, the more elements an author adds to his or her narrative stew, the more muddy and indistinct the flavors become.  But in the case of Houdini Heart, Ki Longfellow has whipped up a veritable banquet of thought-provoking, twisty plotlines and psychological labyrinths, peppered liberally with literary references and homages and served up in a fiendishly-delightful neo-Gothic spread.  The result is both stunning and satisfying.

This is what I was hoping Marisha Pessl’s Night Film might be like.  I didn’t hate Night Film, but I feel the author lost control of many of her threads somewhere in the middle, and I was unable to sustain my suspension of disbelief.  In contrast, Longfellow managed to keep me invested emotionally and intellectually so that I could allow myself to be placidly, even enthusiastically, led into the funhouse of her protagonist’s mental breakdown.

I would recommend this to fans of psychological ficiton, character studies, unusual mysteries and Gothics, as well as fiction about writers.  Ki Longfellow has created one of the most fascinating female anti-heroes I’ve ever encountered, and her story is well worth reading.


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