Picks and Pans Review: The Bleeding Heart

updated 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Lionel Shriver

Let's start by looking for superficial similarities. Here's one: Each of these novels is set in the Troubles of modern-day Belfast. Here's another: The protagonists are, more or less, in the hospitality business. Moore's Michael Dillon manages a hotel. Farrell O'Phelan, Shriver's tortured hero, owns one. That may be it for similarities.

Moore (author of The Black Robe and The Color of Blood), in 195 pages, garrots the reader with the true horror of Ulster—ordinary people dragged out of their real lives and into the unreality of an ugly little civil war. Shriver (Female of the Species) gives us 400 dreary pages, in which the reader is continually interrupted by the sounds of hammering as the author tries to construct Unforgettable Literary Characters.

All reviews of Brian Moore novels include a little boilerplate about how underappreciated he is. This one is no exception.

Lies of Silence starts by posing an exquisite little moral problem for Dillon. Terrorists/freedom fighters break into his house and take him and his wife, Moira, prisoner. Then they make Dillon an offer—deliver a bomb to the hotel where he works and they'll refrain from killing Moira. This simple moral equation is complicated by the fact that Dillon was about to tell Moira—who is more than slightly bonkers—that he loves someone else and wants out of the marriage. At crucial moments Dillon rebels where a more careful man would just do what he had to do to survive. But he foils the plot.

Moira, after her ordeal, mouths off on TV. Dillon and Andrea, his mistress, flee to London to get away from the encroaching madness—and the fact that Moira has told the world that Dillon can identify her kidnappers. The noose tightens inexorably.

Shriver starts The Bleeding Heart with a meeting in a distillery. Philadelphia-born Estrin Lancaster (love that name!) spots O'Phelan (love that name too!) through the vapors from a vat of Irish whiskey. O'Phelan is an enigmatic, alcoholic Catholic who used to run his own free-lance bomb disposal service. Estrin is a woman who has traveled the world: "I've picked grapes in Champagne and lemons in Greece," she tells O'Phelan. "I've made plastic ash trays in Amsterdam, done interior carpentry in Ylivieska. I've bussed trays in the Philippines under Marcos, manufactured waterproof boots in Israel and counseled in a German drug abuse clinic in West Berlin."

And she is not the only character who is dialogue impaired. O'Phelan himself—and Shriver clearly wants him to be an Unforgettable Character—blathers thus: "In the last 10 years. I've been credited as a Provo, a Stickie, an IRP and a leg man for branches of the IPLO you haven't even heard of.... I imagine with these credentials, I can waltz into any pub in town."

Indeed, a reader feels he has waltzed into some strange pub, where tiresome people are having a heated, impenetrable argument. Very soon it's time to ease quietly out the door and leave them to their posturings. (Moore: Nan A. Talese Books/Doubleday, $18.95; Shriver: Farrar Straus Giroux, $22.95)

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