M. John Harrison's novel The Course of the Heart, also featured as one of two of the novels in his compilation Anima, is one of Harrison's attempts to create a sense of magic and energy in a real-world situation.
The characters themselves are well drawn, existing in our world, or a rather dreary approximation of it. They are embroiled in a lopsided love triangle that crumbles, is reinforced, crumbles again, simultaneously drawing the characters together and pushing them apart. The sick and troubled Pamela falls desperately ill; her ex-husband Lucas struggles to reconcile with her, using a mutually-constructed legend to do so, as the first-person protagonist watches on. Frustrated by Lucas' indirect attempt at romantic appeasement and his own scabbed-over feelings for Pamela, he is drawn into the crumbling villages of English Derbyshire, which Harrison seems to have a strong dislike for, describing it perhaps not untruthfully as grey and depressed, mirroring the emotions of the protagonist and the feel of the novel overall.
It's not a wholly depressing novel; there are instances of humour, and the observations of the main character serve as welcome minor distractions from the story, which usually end up as opaque metaphors for the relationships between the three primary characters. A lot of the novel is metaphor, including the magic realism aspects I mentioned earlier. The first section feels like a short story, which in fact it was, in part, in his collection Things That Never Happen, which was itself an amalgam of his two earlier publications The Ice Monkey and Travel Arrangements. This shows through horribly, with a fast-paced, fantasy-feel mystery developing halfway in the first chapter, only to be almost wholly ignored for a hundred pages as Harrison sinks his teeth into the comparatively dull lives of his characters. At the end, the fantastical shared history of the three isn't even revealed, leaving the reader forced to find answers and satisfaction in the snippets of information provided earlier of a Heaven-like place called the "Pleroma", which was apparently punctured during a semi-forgotten magical experiment, leaving mad manifestations to pursue the three through the course of their lives.
This fantasy element is in fact the best aspect of the book, making a fascinating and delightfully mysterious read, but the great opening is let down by the rest of the novel. If only Harrison had devoted more time to the interesting metaphor and not the "real-life" complications of his characters, then the novel would be worth a second read. As it stands, the narrative is truly beautiful, extremely powerful and emotive without resorting to clumsy poetry. To read Harrison is to feel whatever he wants you to feel, but also in this case it means to sadly crave the better aspects of the story while making do with whatever Harrison wanted to concentrate on the time, which often feels like mildly irrelevant side-story.
If you like mainstream fiction with a dash of magic, then this is the perfect novel for you. If you were hoping for a plot revolving around one of those aspects of Harrison's wonderful imagination, like his genre novels, you'll be sadly disappointed. By Viriconium instead.