Thanks to (Jordy's Godpa) James' recommendation, my 2009 reading habit has started on a most auspicious note.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by the previously unknown-to-me American writer Carson McCullers, not only has one of the most beautiful titles in all of novel-dom, it also has one of the most interesting central characters I've encountered.
Published in 1940, the novel is set in in a small Southern town, and follows the life and thoughts of five characters - a deaf mute named John Singer; Biff, the owner of a restaurant, an African American doctor called Copeland; Jake, a Communist instigator and a young girl called Mick Kelly.
The central theme is obvious from the title, but the impact and profundity of the novel lies in the character of John Singer. Each of the other characters see him as their own personal saviour, a blank canvas (or a silent room more like) whom they can freely to share their innermost thoughts and personal secrets with. Each of the characters has their own cross to bear, each is, to borrow a term from Theroux, quietly desperate in their own way. Their loneliness compels them to act, to find their own personal therapy, which in each case, turns out to be regular visitations with Singer. It helps that Singer can read lips and demonstrates an innate understanding of their demons, and the means to calm their thoughts. And this is where the gut-wrenching impact of the book lies, that though Singer is a lifeline for these troubled souls, his generosity of the soul is never reciprocated. Not because the other characters are conceited, but simply because they don't see that Singer himself is entombed in own silent loneliness.
The novel explores loneliness in all guises, the schism a coming-of-age teen feels trapped in an impoverished family, a husband who grieves for what his marriage could have been, two men who are driven to despair because of their beliefs. It also tackles issues of racism, very much remeniscent of To Kill a Mockingbird.
And the most astounding thing? Carson McCullers wrote the novel when she was just 23. To say this book oozes wisdom is not an exaggeration. It's just joined the ranks of my favourite books of all time. Can't recommend it highly enough.