Book review: A Human Love Story - Journeys To The Heart, by Matt Hopwood

This book has an interesting premise: author Matt Hopwood walked from Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England, to Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, with just a backpack, staying with strangers and recording their stories of love, which form the book, quoted verbatim. Some are romantic, while others record familial love or a connection with a particular landscape.

Matt Hopwood

The blurb says of the recorded dialogue: “Each story is different. Each beautiful. Each valuable.” I’m not sure I would agree.

I like the oral history format. The Facebook blog Humans of New York, which provides a photograph of the subject on the street and a couple of paragraphs of quotes about an incident affecting their life, offers fascinating snapshots of the thoughts of strangers. The master of the technique in book form was perhaps Tony Parker, whose expert interviews and editing produced gripping insights into his subjects.

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Hopwood has recorded some touching interviews. “I love the bones of them”, for example, is a moving account of postnatal depression and how anonymous online friendships can be life-saving. But I suspect that if you travel around the country asking people to tell their stories, you are likely to attract those who are very happy to talk about themselves and, in this case it seems, those who often use the kind of therapy speak that can cause unsympathetic eyes to roll. One speaker, identified only as MA, says of his or her fledgling relationship: “There’s an urban monastery in Crosby, and I went and stayed there. You know, I had time to be alone and in myself. And I began to think ‘Where can I give some space to our relationship that is in the context of where we are living?’”

Some of the stories are just dull, like being stuck on a train and having to listen to the witterings of a fellow passenger. I would have left “We’re just humans on this rock” on the cutting room floor for example. The protagonist of this story states: “So like six weeks later we were engaged. I asked her to marry me because I was just so in love with her. I was like, ‘She’s the one.’ But then it fell apart – which was sad.” Including this in its own chapter means that you have to look for profundity where there is none, like putting a frame round a fire hydrant in an art gallery.

There are interesting stories in this collection, but the book requires a drastic edit – not least to take out the plethora of exclamation marks. Hopwood needs to choose his subjects more carefully and hone his questions to get better results.

A Human Love Story: Journeys To The Heart, by Matt Hopwood, Birlinn, £9.99