Book review: The Outline of Love by Morgan McCarthy

The classics are proving fertile inspiration for novelist Morgan McCarthy whose impressive debut won her fistfuls of critical acclaim.
The Outline of Love by Morgan McCarthyThe Outline of Love by Morgan McCarthy
The Outline of Love by Morgan McCarthy

The Other Half of Me, a dark tale of family secrets and faded grandeur, paid homage to the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh but now she heads back to the Greek myths for a lyrical coming-of-age odyssey.

The Outline of Love links the Ovidian story of Persephone and her harvest goddess mother Demeter to a young woman’s journey from gauche, lonely Highlands schoolgirl to student cast adrift in the intoxicating and polluted splendour of London.

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Like Persephone, who was abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld, and forced to adapt to a new horizon, McCarthy’s eponymous heroine must negotiate the dark forces of unknown territory and the rocky road of new relationships.

The result is a gripping, carefully crafted story about the fine line between love and obsession, and a thoughtful and contemporary reworking of the classical legend of Persephone as a symbol of rebirth.

Persephone Triebold has grown up in a desolate corner of the Scottish Highlands, raised by her over-anxious father and memories of her mother Sylvia who died when she was only four.

Their home, a remote cottage on the outskirts of Ullapool, is a shrine to her mother whilst her father, still bewildered by the loss of his wife, has stopped the lives of both himself and his daughter moving forward.

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But change is afoot when Persephone leaves the solitude and uninhabited mountain ranges of the Highlands to study for a management degree at King’s College in London.

‘Almost anything could happen to me, in the dream-space of London,’ she muses and in the early days she is intoxicated by the change from ‘the soft thick comatose dark’ of her home to the capital city’s ‘electrically charged dark, awake and alive.’

Inexperienced in the rules of friendship, sex and love, Persephone is soon discovering parties, drink and new friends but city life fails to supply her with the longed-for grand passion, ‘an outline of love – too indistinct to see properly,’ that she has always dreamed of.

It’s only when literary star Leo Ford, a former pop singer who has become a celebrated writer, walks into her life that she becomes convinced she has met someone she can love. ‘Finally I have found my icon.’

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But although Persephone succeeds in entering Leo’s circle of friends, she finds him to be as elusive as he is sought after. Seemingly powerless to win his affection, she becomes increasingly curious about a mysterious and unsavoury incident in his past which the newspapers are eager to resurrect...

McCarthy, who writes with a mesmeric prose style, paints a finely balanced portrait of two very different locations and the conflicts that arise as Persephone’s mental landscape shifts from provincial preconception to raw reality, and from lost soul to resolute woman.

A clever and compelling novel of ideas… and ideals.

(Tinder Press, paperback, £7.99)

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