Book review: The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland

The fact that Ailsa Rae is alive is '˜fifteen sorts of miracles.'

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland
The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland

Born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, once upon a time Ailsa would have been dead within days. Even so, she has had 28 years of operations, still lives at home with her mum, she’s never had a job and she’s ‘blue around the edges’ because her body is starved of oxygen.

But all that is about to change in the space of a few hours…

Stephanie Butland, a Northumberland-born author who doubles up as a creative thinking tutor, is an inspirational cancer survivor and not short of the northern grit and wit that form the backbone of a string of incisive and highly original novels, including last year’s big hit, Lost For Words.

Now she is back to knock the socks off us again with a clever, funny, moving and thought-provoking story about a young woman almost literally coming back from the near-dead after a heart transplant, and discovering that living as a ‘normal’ person is not just harder than she had imagined but brings with it a huge emotional legacy.

Sometimes Ailsa Rae from Edinburgh would hold her breath, ‘waiting to see if another beat will come.’ But after years on the transplant register, and only just in time, she has finally been matched to a donor, survived the op and is ready to ‘let the living commence.’

For years she has been writing a blog spot under the name of BlueHeart in which she told the world about her serious condition, and the ups and downs of her long road through illness and surgery. And she felt so helpless for so long that she would let reader polls on her blog make decisions for her.

Ailsa’s new chance at life should be a joyful adventure… but her relationship with her devoted mother Hayley is at breaking point because Ailsa is determined to ditch her dependency and fly solo. She wants to find her father who walked out of their home decades ago, and she worries that her friends have long ago left her behind.

And then there’s Lennox, her best friend and one-time lover, who was sick too and didn’t make it. His death ‘pinned her to the ground’ and now she is supposed to face all of this without the man she loved.

Unused to making her own decisions, Ailsa’s new beginning has a lot of ‘what ifs’ but her new heart, which she has nicknamed Apple because it’s ‘plump, red and good for keeping the doctor away,’ is also a bold one.

And when she meets actor Seb Morley – out of work and recovering from a cornea transplant that saved his sight – it’s time for Ailsa to start listening to her new heart…

Butland’s delightfully quirky novel delivers on many levels. A fascinating and informative medical drama, relayed with the help of an entertaining flow of public blogs and private emails, The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae is also a warm and witty romance, a tender and uplifting tale of hope, and a gentle but persuasive reminder of the critical importance of organ donation.

The raw realities of living with and surviving a potentially fatal illness are portrayed with matter-of-fact honesty but without detracting from a storyline that is still engaging, darkly humorous and full of the elegance and wisdom that we have come to expect from this acutely observant and emotionally astute author.

Ailsa, who is at long last learning the practicalities of standing on her own two feet, the lovable, chain-smoking Hayley, who must adapt to a life which doesn’t involve protecting her daughter, and the witty and irrepressible Seb are the stars that shine brightest in an engaging cast of characters who circle in Ailsa’s bright orbit.

Immaculately researched and charmingly quirky, The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae is bold, beautiful and curiously – for a novel about death and illness – gloriously life-affirming.

(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)