At its heart, The Unheard is a story about empathy and callousness, listening and turning a deaf ear, bearing witness and looking away.

Anne Worthington’s debut novel lodges inside the head of Tom Pullan, the man at its centre, sharpening his memories against the inner lives of his wife and daughter, honing them from the confusion of dementia in his later years back to the scalpel-edged brutality of his childhood.

It’s also the tale of two Maggies: Tom’s daughter, who blazes into life with the lighter fluid vitality of adolescence in the book’s middle section, and ‘that woman’, never named as Thatcher, but clearly the cutter who pruned away the fellow feeling from a society she once proclaimed did not exist. Of the book’s two villains, wreaking the most wide-ranging devastation, she is the most monstrous.

The words chosen by Worthington, a documentary photographer, to voice her characters’ thoughts are beautifully composed, capturing their individual expression, be it the increasing perplexity of Alzheimer’s disease and the sense of being lost without a map in the now-unfamiliar terrain of one’s own life, or the asphyxiating coils of anxiety as its ever-decreasing circles leave no space to breathe, no time to think.

Anne Worthington

There is something, too, of the documentarian’s eye in the times she elects to plot Tom’s life against; the turn of the millennium, with its flicker of false promise, the height of the Miners’ Strike, in all its stark divisions, and the depression years of the 1930s. Such are the settings that she sinks Tom’s drama into.

In the process, Worthington humanises history, keeping it to scale, fleshing out its casualties while treating them with the  dignity they deserve. If Thatcher is demonised, her loss of humanity is plotted through Tom’s unflinching gaze, bearing witness to the abyss where her empathy should be. This simultaneous reduction and magnification is the only means he has to do justice to the fallout from her policies, destructive as neutron bombs. If the long shadow of her presence stunts the prospects of Tom’s family, the absences from within his small circle of kinship extend across their century, the ripples of generational trauma.

The measure of Tom, and how he comes to stand taller than Thatcher in the reader’s estimation, is that, even as he is coming apart from himself, he retains the capacity to look outward, noticing and caring that May, his wife, is also unwell. Throughout, it’s heartbreakingly clear that Tom feels himself judged and, so often, found wanting. It’s painfully the case that, all too often, he keeps his thoughts to himself.

What, in an American drama, might seem like an over-familiar platitude adding unearned heft, when Tom gathers up his remaining stock of words to articulate his feelings, it hits home: “I think having a family was something that went right for me.” Even as words themselves slip from him, it’s a truth he can navigate by, steering its “little boat”, a metaphor which recurs in waves.

Involving, saddening and enraging, Worthington’s novel gives voice to a generation of men who were taught to be uncomplaining, remaining attentive to the costs of such stoicism while being careful not to censure it herself. As she has Tom muse, “You have to do it right, you owe it to someone…you have to want to listen.”

In this, as in so many other respects, Worthington’s debut does it absolutely right, giving Tom a hearing, putting him on the page, where anyone might listen.

By Desmond Bullen

Images courtesy of Anne Worthington


Unheard will be published by Confingo in July 2023. For more information, click here