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A Heart That Works by Rob Delaney: a heart-breaking, consoling, funny and angry lament

This book has many stories packed tightly around its central narrative, its almost unbearable evocation of grief and love

Rob Delaney with his two-year-old son, Henry, who died in January 2018. Photograph: Rob Delaney/Facebook
A Heart that Works
A Heart that Works
Author: Rob Delaney
ISBN-13: 978-1399710848
Publisher: Coronet
Guideline Price: £16.99

A Heart That Works tells the story of the short life of Rob Delaney’s son Henry, who died of cancer, aged two, in 2018. Heartbreaking, consoling, funny and angry, it also works as lament, all of its threads pulled tight by the one strong metaphor of drowning that forms its backbone.

Delaney begins with a humorous description of his current north London life, swimming in the ponds where he’d once feared drowning — not in the ocean, it was “… not a problem for me, but I’ve spent most of my life afraid of lakes and ponds”.

The humour darkens quickly as he moves on to the scuba-diving lessons he took with his wife, Leah, after Henry’s death. “I descended the twelve or so feet and sat on the bottom of the pool in darkness and felt lots of things, but none of them were fear. Mainly, I felt strongly that I was in a situation where, if something went wrong, I could very, very quickly be with Henry. And that felt good.”

It’s no coincidence that the words grief and drowning are never far apart. Somewhere between Delaney’s phobia of ponds and the scuba-diving lessons, he experienced something far more horrifying — the discovery of “a tumour, the size of an apple near” in 11-month-old Henry’s brain stem. “(How the f*** do you fit an apple in a kid’s head? I guess you don’t. It makes them very sick and then it kills them if you don’t get it out.)”


The operation resulted in cranial nerve damage that affected Henry in several devastating ways, including his ability to swallow. Without a tracheostomy, Henry could literally drown in his own saliva. While there are many other painful and exhausting setbacks, care for that tracheostomy dominates everything now, “I hated that f***ing thing and … also wish to hell I was still spending a good portion of each day doing his tracheostomy care. If you ever see a kid with a tracheostomy, you are looking at a bad motherf***er … I can …promise you that their parents would be of genuine use in a field hospital.”

But he and Leah were pretty much running their own field hospital anyway with help from their family. Even their sons Eugene and Oscar (barely a few years older than Henry) helped with the suction machine after they finally managed to bring him home, “. . . the amount of supplies and medicines was comical, and required medium-sized retail-shop-level inventory”.

There are many helpers, many stars here, not least the staff of the NHS — the NHS that has been brought so sadly to its knees in the few years since. But the brightest star of all is Henry because this is also a love story. His character draws the reader like a flame, “… one of Henry’s favourite activities was to thumb through and ‘read’ a little pocket-sized book called Don’ts for Husbands … If you attempted to take it from him, he would wag an index finger at you.”

And Henry is a strong as he is sweet: “To witness a one-year-old, receiving brain chemo, work so hard with such profound limitations was …astonishing … His drive to live and to learn and to grow … is the most powerful force I’ve ever seen … Einstein and Serena Williams can f*** off … I’m not a fan of the ‘fighting’ metaphor for cancer. I don’t think you … beat it. The effort I saw Henry expend, again and again, at the age of one, under such duress, suggests someone who could beat anything that can be beaten. Cancer’s pretty much going to do what it wants. Should it come for me, I hope I’ll just ride the wave.”

A Heart That Works has many stories packed tightly around its central narrative, its almost unbearable evocation of grief and love barely held in check by Delaney’s authorial voice, which somehow knows when to withhold even though he frequently lashes out with often comic effect. Comedy and poetry feed on loss — in both forms, brevity and timing are vital.

In the last quarter of this life-changing book, I encountered one of the loneliest passages I’ve ever read. “After he died, I had the … sensation of … being older than my parents, or at … least having seen something that they hadn’t … it … changed me. I felt like no one, even my parents, who raised me, had anything to offer me that could … show me a way forward.”

Every parent dreads a child’s death but if we haven’t experienced it, we can’t imagine it: this slim volume brings us far closer than we could possibly have imagined.

  • Martina Evans’s latest poetry collection, American Mules (Carcanet, 2021), won the 2022 Pigott Poetry Prize.
Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic