Mary Gordon’s first novel, “Final Payments,” was published to great acclaim in 1978, when she was 28 years old, and she has been a literary voice to contend with ever since.

In her oeuvre, which includes 11 works of fiction as well as essays, memoirs, a biography of Joan of Arc and reflections on “Reading Jesus,” there is often a clear tension between those institutions and systems of belief that frame a life — religious, political, familial — and the demands and impulses of the solitary self — for instance, moral, intellectual and sexual.

Gordon’s new novel, “There Your Heart Lies,” is no different, and no less intellectually and emotionally involving. We meet the main character, Marian Taylor, in 1937 as she boards an ocean liner bound for Spain. She is with a company of Communists intent on supporting the Republicans in their fight against Franco and the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Quickly we learn that Marian, 19 years old, is fleeing her privileged, self-righteous Catholic family after they have driven her beloved brother Johnny, who is gay, to suicide.

Marian’s love for Johnny (“from which everything has always started. Johnny. The first love. The purest.”) is one touchstone in her story. The other is her love for her granddaughter Amelia, whom we encounter when Marian, now 92 and living in Rhode Island, discovers she is dying.

Amelia, whose “vagueness seems to Marian a desirable lightness,” surprises her grandmother by insisting, “you’ve kept some of my inheritance from me. And I want it. … Your past,” she says. “I don’t know who you are.”

That past, which has already unfolded for us as the youthful Marian’s experience, now returns as the mature woman’s reflections — and then in the young Amelia’s reckoning. The horrors of the Spanish Civil War, the atrocities committed in the name of one belief or another and abetted by the Catholic Church, are immediate and real in Marian’s remembering, measured in the telling, but strange and shocking in their newness to Amelia.

“The direct view is not the true one,” Marian thinks, “only a series of connections to other things helps her to understand her granddaughter better, she likes to think, than anyone else. This understanding, she believes, must be the truest form of love.” This is, in a sense, the way “There Your Heart Lies” works — indirectly, through a series of connections, translating inexplicable and inexpressible experience into understanding.

 

Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in Cornucopia, Wis.

There Your Heart Lies
By: Mary Gordon.
Publisher: Pantheon, 320 pages, $26.95.