Amy E. Casey: The Sturgeon's Heart (2022) | featured image

Debut Novel ‘The Sturgeon’s Heart’ Navigates Tricky Currents

Poet and short fiction writer Amy E. Casey’s debut novel The Sturgeon’s Heart explores identity through hiding within life’s tricky currents.

The Sturgeon's Heart
Amy E. Casey
Gibson House
April 2022

Although problematic in some ways, The Sturgeon’s Heart, a debut novel by poet and short fiction writer Amy E. Casey, springs from a powerful premise: the shedding of personal identity. Because every major choice in life carries with it the closing of doors to alternate life trajectories, at some point, almost all of us contemplate ‘starting over’.  

Casey posits three protagonists who choose or are forced to choose, starting anew, and each does so, in one way or another, by vanishing. One of these characters, Jo, escapes a bad marriage by fleeing her hometown but not her reliance on alcohol. Another, Sarah, a scientist who worked on experimental genetic therapies, changes her name and flees after a national magazine highlights her work and its risks, leading to a barrage of threatening hate mail. 

The most interesting character is Howard, a freelance writer who finds that his skin has suddenly become transparent, exposing musculature and molars, organs and branching, pulsing blood flow. This debilitating medical problem causes him to experiment with women’s make-up to hide his transparency for fear that he will be taken for a monster. 

Jo and Sarah end up in Duluth, Minnesota, where Howard lives. Casey slowly moves her characters toward each other, so they eventually cross paths, but she does it in a way that, while plausible, can seem coincidental. They bump into each other, in one case literally. While plot has to begin in some way or other, and there is admittedly a role for coincidence in getting plot up and running, in the case of The Sturgeon’s Heart, there is an underlying feeling that the characters are moved more by the authorial outline than by being caught up in currents comprising a natural and meaningful flow.   

As to the plotline in The Sturgeon’s Heart, although the personal weaknesses of these characters may be considered exaggerated (in terms of the degree of Jo’s reliance on alcohol and the extremity of Sarah’s paranoia – she has moved more than 20 times as the novel opens), these character faults work well to enhance the plausibility of the events comprising rising action. However, the plot’s climax is dependent on actions that seem out of character, even in light of these characters’ foibles.

When there is, for example, a critical event involving personal injury and when medical help is clearly on the way, the characters hide. This is a plot twist that seems jarring. The rationale for this turn of events at a crucial point in the narrative could have been laid-in with more substance and clarity.

As to Casey’s writing more generally, there is a rule of thumb that authors should ‘show rather than tell’.  Not every author or reader subscribes to this guidance. Still, an emphasis on ‘showing’ can provide a vivid narrative unspooling in real-time before the reader’s mind, exposing action and dialogue as it happens. While any narrative is bound to be an amalgam of showing and telling, the writing in The Sturgeon’s Heart is weighted heavily toward the latter.  

There is also the matter of including description that does not always contribute to the advance of the plot – describing, for example, bystanders’ hair or clothing – which tends to bog down the pulse of narrative flow. In her future writings, Casey should trust readers to flesh out for themselves a full mental image of scenes when given only a few well-chosen brushstrokes of description.

Similarly, Casey’s exemplary urge toward creativity through novel figurative language often pushes a bit too far. The author offers plenty of descriptions of physical or bodily effects that provide novelty but don’t ring true: “a feverish union of hot and cold blood enveloped him”; “pressure hurtled through his veins”; “Sarah felt a pang settle on her breathing”; “a spike of heat cracked through Howard’s bones”; “the pulsing of his blood match[ed] the tenor of the sap moving through the [tree] trunks.”

The Sturgeon’s Heart has a powerful premise: it is not so much the philosophical question of what constitutes ‘personal identity’ as it is the real-world consequences of trying to shed it or, in the case of Howard, to hide it. Leaving town and changing one’s name to avoid a bad marriage or hate mail is one way to initiate a plot’s chain of consequences, and disappearing into the woods is another. Casey’s characters, like the often-mentioned spawning sturgeon, feel the magnetic tug of home even when returning to it would be an upstream struggle. Casey does a good job, in this substantial debut, of fleshing out interesting characters caught up in these tricky currents. 

RATING 4 / 10
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