Boy meets girl on the Northern Irish border - but what if peace is harder than war?
Reviewed by Sam Creighton
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The opening of Romeo and Juliet sets up what is now seen as the archetype of tragic love and, with the substitution of fair Verona for fraught Derry, readers of Guard Your Heart may work through Sue Divin’s debut expecting it to follow a similar blueprint.
We have two households, the Hennesseys and the Scotts, both certainly alike in pride and aligned against each other due to ancient grudge, the Troubles, which are the storm on the horizon throughout the book. The parallels persist, with Guard Your Heart also beginning with civil blood being spilt, seeing our protagonist, Catholic republican Aidan Hennessey, being savagely beaten by a group of Protestant loyalists containing members of the Scott clan, most importantly their own Juliet, Iona.
The pair fall in love despite (because of?) their soul-deep differences but, the tighter they seem to cling to each other, the more violently their families oppose the unlikely union. Neither love nor life seems guaranteed as the book draws towards its close. However, as Northern Ireland broke out of its violent cycle, so too does Guard Your Heart seek to break out of Romeo and Juliet’s equally bloody arc.
As Guard Your Heart casts its net into the mind of its reader, Shakespearean tragedies is not the only quarry it seeks to drag up from the depths. Some books really grab you by the memories, seeming to come from inside you rather than outside. Readers recall reminisces personal, shared and cultural. Such books are powerful – important, even – not because audiences share their story or their characters, but because they share the currents of life that run beneath them. Guard Your Heart is one such book, being as it is, a meditation on how we are formed by, live with and let go of both memories of our own making and those that are not.
It is this final idea, that your personality is coloured within the lines of other peoples’ memories, that strikes me as the most interesting to dissect in the classroom. Iona and Aidan are both painted onto the canvas of the Troubles, the brushes held in the white-knuckled hands of their fathers (a policeman and dissident respectively). It recalls the pessimism of Philip Larkin’s This Be the Verse:
They **** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
These familial relationships are where the book’s depth is. Aidan in particular is surrounded by an incredible supporting cast. His relationships with his absent, IRA-implicated father, his brother who is following the same path, his late mother, his wise but flighty sister and his judgemental but concerned aunt all have aspects and impacts that the book doesn’t have time to full explore but that leave the reader with much to ponder. The dynamic between the two brothers is particularly intense and tragic and could promote fantastic discussion around how we are shaped by our parents and how free our decisions really are within the societal structures we inhabit and the friction between familial and community loyalties.
Another aspect of the book that could be fruitful to explore is the role and depiction of religion. Iona is a Protestant whose beliefs are very important to her. The positive depiction of a person of faith and the enriching impact it has in their life is somewhat unusual but refreshing in YA literature. Equally interesting is Aidan’s spiritual journey from lapsed Catholicism to a profound experience. Exactly what he experiences is left up for the reader to discern for themselves but then discernment and discussion is what all good books hope to prompt.
Even the title of the book, Guard Your Heart, has religious significance, coming as it does from the Book of Proverbs, will the full verse being: ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it’. It was a common phrase of Aidan’s mother and he ponders its meaning throughout the story. However, Solomon’s words are a warning against other people or situations turning your heart away from God’s path, from doing what is right. This is a battle fought by many characters in Divin’s novel and is another theme rich with opportunities for discussion.
Guard Your Heart is a book very much for secondary school, and I would suggest KS4+, not only because of its themes of drugs, alcoholism, violence and sex, but also because of the historical knowledge it presumes of the Troubles. An understanding of the past and present, feelings and forces in Northern Ireland is needed to truly grapple with the book but it is never explained for someone without that hinterland of knowledge to draw on. It would go well with a topic on the conflict in Ireland, providing a human picture of how the violence of the past continues to claim victims today.
Guard Your Heart is a book that looks at how we are made of memories, but it is also a book to remember in its own right.