A haunting story of grief, acceptance, and learning to see beauty in chaos
Content Warning: Child abuse, sexual abuse, animal abuse
What Feeds the Heart by Daryl Glinn-Tanner shines as equal parts fiction, memoir, and self-help. Written from the perspective of Jean-Marie Stark in her mother’s hospital room, What Feeds the Heart leaps from present to past and back again as she reads to her mother and reflects on a childhood of neglect at her mother’s hands.
“Reading aloud isn’t for Mom, but for me to unpack memories, emotions, slip into my feelings, heal the traumas that drive me to disassociate.”
The novel begins with Jean-Marie learning of her mother’s overdose and rushing to her deathbed. As she waits for the inevitable to happen, she begins to reflect on moments from her childhood: living with her mother in a commune, not fit for one child, let alone the three who lived there. As people come and go through the house, some friendly and others not so much, Jean-Marie finds solace in her will within, which she names “Willothin.”
In a house with some truly questionable characters, Jean-Marie manages to find a few to look out for herself as she faces whatever struggles life throws at her. There’s Bodhi, arriving at Jean-Marie’s home from an East Indian Ashram, who teaches Jean-Marie how to cook his favorite recipes, some of which are included at the end of the book. Michael, a blind veteran, teaches her skills to cope with what we later learn is undiagnosed dyslexia.
Her Great-Aunt Myrtle does what she can when she isn’t occupied with her own health. Through almost all of her adventures though, Willothin is with her, warning her of danger or encouraging her to truly see the beauty around her.
“The breeze stirs up my pretend friend—she smells of comfort spices—nutmeg and vanilla.”
Glinn-Tanner excels at telling this story through the eyes of a child. Her descriptions of Jean-Marie’s world truly bring this story to life, creating a sense of whimsy and wonder in a story otherwise filled with heartbreak. She is able to evoke an almost visceral response to her descriptions of jumping in a cool stream or walking barefoot on the pavement in the dead of summer. She intersperses this with feelings of helplessness, of knowing there is nothing that can be done for the loved one in the hospital bed.
What Feeds the Heart is a lesson in grief, acceptance, and confronting our struggles and triumphs head on. This book is not for the faint of heart though; it contains brief descriptions of child abuse, sexual abuse, animal abuse, and drug use. Those familiar with these themes may find solace in detailed descriptions of Jean-Marie’s coping mechanisms and the strength she needs to find to get there. In the end, one must determine what they are able to endure, as Jean-Marie does throughout her lifetime.