Heartland by Neil Cross

My stepfather, the weirdly lovable dog-beater
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The Independent Culture

In Heartland, the novelist Neil Cross has not just produced an excellent memoir; it is best described as a murderous blow. Although it documents the author's fragmented, dismal upbringing, the book's real purpose lies elsewhere. It is a hatchet job with all its skilful rage blasted at one man, the author's charismatic stepfather, Derek Cross.

Derek is a kind monster, a weak racist. Inch by nauseous inch the horrific emptiness of the man is revealed until the reader is left in no doubt: Derek Cross is a husk. But Neil, still bearing the Cross of his stepfather's surname, can be gentle and subtle too, opening his book with a strangely non-judgemental portrayal of his natural parents. There is even a whiff of schmaltz as their Christian names are sentimentally deployed in a wistful vignette of courting. "When I think of them, I choose to think of them as teenagers, waltzing at the Locarno," he sighs, they are "Alan and Edna", the blameless dream.

The doctored reminiscence cannot last. Mother's first lover breaks into the family house, putting dad in hospital. They get back together only for her to disappear with the villain of the piece, the twisted Derek. The author is separated from his siblings, abandoned by his mum, betrayed by his father's new marriage. Unwanted, he is eventually fetched by his mother, to be a sort of living ornament to her new relationship with Derek. When he is uprooted from his native Bristol to live with them in Edinburgh, school becomes a nightmare of bullying. Neil vomits every morning in fear; he is held against the gates while schoolmates kick him in the balls.

But all this, though beautifully described, is merely the counter-melody to the real tune. Little Neil is watching Derek, his every crime languidly anatomised for our delectation. He is a dog beater, a man who says "nigger", a false preacher. Yet the author's ambivalence towards his victim makes for a very absorbing tale - Derek is weirdly loveable.

In the final pages, Neil describes his feelings as he watches Derek in a moment of vulnerability. "In that cinema, watching him sleep, I came to understand that adoration requires a kind of pity." And there you have it, tiny and exquisite, the literary bull's eye.

Heartland has many qualities, not least the poetry of its language and the gentle evocation of a late 1970s childhood. But it is the relentless prosecution of Derek that truly ignites this book. The way Cross puts the authorial boot in, tears shining in his eyes, is grimly riveting.