Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thomas H. Cook: Breakheart Hill

Thomas H. Cook's Breakheart Hill was recommended to me by a friend. This is the first one by him that I've read, and frankly, I probably wouldn't have read it without a recommendation. It's not that I have heard anything about him that would discourage me, but there are so many writers out there that he would most likely have gotten lost in the crowd, without being pointed out to me.

Therefore, when I opened the book, I had no idea of what to expect and was grabbed immediately by the very first sentence. The novel begins, "This is the darkest story that I ever heard." I was instantly reminded of one of my favorite novels, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, which begins "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Coincidence? And, as I read the novel, I couldn't help but wonder if Cook had read Ford's novel.

Both novels are first person narratives in which the narrator looks back on his life and on the lives of those around him. Both narrators tell the story not in a chronologically coherent manner but wander back and forth, from the present to the past and then to the present again, and somehow at the end do manage to get the story told. Both writers employ the first person narrative to give the work a claustrophobic air by suggesting that there is so much more to be told, but the reader is trapped inside the head of a narrator who either doesn't understand what is going on until it is all over (Ford's novel) or chooses not to tell all he knows (Cook's novel). In addition, both novels focus on the actions of a small group of people and the way each affects the others in the group.

While there are structural similarities between the two novels, they are still quite different. Cook may have been influenced by Ford when he decided on the narrative structure and the opening sentence, but this is where the similarity ends. Dowell, Ford's narrator, knows nothing of what is going on around him. The relationships of his wife, and their best friends, the Ashburnhams, and the transient members of their little group, escape him completely. Consequently, he is unable to see the impending tragedy until he is confronted by it. On the other hand, Ben, Cook's narrator, frequently tells the reader that he alone knows the full story, and that he has spent the past 30 years making sure it never gets out, at least by him, anyway. The reader can only wonder why, and speculate.

Breakheart Hill is aptly named. It is the story of the events leading up to and resulting from a murderous attack on a teen-aged girl which took place on the appropriately named Breakheart Hill, just outside of the small town of Choctaw, Alabama. It is this event that has haunted the narrator and his friends for the past thirty years, and it is clear that her life wasn't the only one that was ultimately destroyed, or damaged in some way. At the end, I could only wish that she hadn't submitted that poem, or that Ben had not agreed to become the editor of the school paper, for it is a story about small and seemingly insignificant events and their unintended and unimagined consequences.

I'm not giving anything away when I say that the central question throughout the work is the narrator's involvement in the crime. It is, to me, the most significant element of the novel. This question arises in the first chapter:

"And yet there are times when I do hear certain things very distinctly: her body plunging through the undergrowth..."

"From time to time, though rarely, I actually hear her voice. It is faint, but persistent. Sometimes it comes in the form of a question: Why are you doing this to me?"

Elsewhere, he says that he can see her eyes raised to him in confusion and bewilderment.

And, it is clear that others, including Luke, his best friend of 30+ years, look at him suspiciously. Or, is that only his guilty conscience at work?

Throughout the work, I considered three possibilities: 1) he is guilty; 2) he is indirectly responsible; or 3) he has deluded himself into blaming himself for it. Cook skillfully encourages this by Ben's numerous, ambiguous reflections on past events that could support all three possibilities, and probably a fourth that I didn't see.

Breakheart Hill is not an action-oriented, page-turner. It moves deliberately, as the narrator slowly unveils the events that inexorably lead up to Breakheart Hill. It is not to be read in small portions--a page or two hastily in a few spare moments--but in large chunks, free from distractions.

Overall Rating: Highly recommended.


  1. I think I read this book about 7 or 8 years ago. I remember there was a twist ending that I didn't think was fair and so I couldn't really decide if I liked the book or not. It did hold my interest up to the end, though.

  2. Cheryl,

    I'm trying to be careful here and not reveal too much about the ending.

    Are you referring to something about the crime itself or about the person who committed the crime?

    If you wish to continue this off-line, my email address is

  3. I, too, am trying not to ruin the ending for anyone thinking of reading it. It was a long time ago that I read it, so it's hard for me to discuss it with much detail anyway. What I was referring to was the crime itself, and the status of the female character in the end. I guess I didn't know if I liked being led to think one way about her, only to see it wasn't her condition at all in the end. ( How's that for being vague?) It made me want to reread the book to pick out any inconsistencies with the ending, but I never did. Maybe I should do that now?

  4. Cheryl,

    Ok, I understand.

    I thought it was completely unnecessary and really added nothing to the story. This was the only quarrel I had with the novel.

  5. I found this totally confusing. I have no idea who did it? Plus if Ben was so in love with her, and became a Doctor in the same area, did he really wait 30 years to go and see her in a vegative state being cared for at home by her Mother? In addition, his revelation that her father was black came out of nowhere and was seemingly at odds with his character. Or did he attack he. I like a mystery, but this was going too far Mr Cook! Confused?

  6. Anonymous,

    It's been five years since I read the novel, and I don't have my own copy. Unfortunately, I am unable at present to answer your questions. As soon as I can get a copy, I will take another look at it.