And the author of Damage, Sin, and the recent Oblivion doesn't disappoint. Listening to Hart talk about her life on a recent visit to Philadelphia, it's hard not to recall the words of Anna, the character in Damage who sparks a fatal attraction in a formerly steady, staid member of Parliament: "Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive."
"I was born," Hart begins, in a throaty voice that gives even the most mundane comments, on the rain or the silvery sheen of skyscrapers, the cadences of poetry, "in a small town called Mullingar. And I do mean small. There were 7,000 people. When I was growing up, I thought it was a metropolis."
She tells her life story as she tells her characters' stories - in broad strokes and simple language, short, spare sentences unburdened by adjectives or adverbs. Her father ran a garage. Her mother looked after Hart and her four siblings. The family spent time in the lakes, swimming long-distance and boating. When she was 12 years old, she went away to a convent school run by ''a wonderful but extremely strict order of French nuns."
And when she was a senior at that school, her younger brother and her younger sister died - her brother Owen in an accident, her sister Shelagh after a long illness - within six months of each other. (Another younger brother had died as an infant, when Hart was 6.)
Hart has a language for this loss, a catch phrase that appears in many published interviews - "my sister from an illness, my brother in an accident."
Beyond that, she doesn't go into details about their deaths, or even speak their names. The story gets boiled down, reduced to simple chronology, with all the heartache left between the lines. Her brother and sister died, and, instead of going on to university, as she'd planned, Hart went home and lived with her parents, and stayed there for four years.
"It was very, very devastating. Just appalling for my mother," Hart, who is 51, says. "When something like that happens, you have no interest at all in your future. You have no interest in anything but trying to save what remains of your family. It was a very terrible time."
Her mother was "ill with grief - so ill she went into a hospital. It took a long time for her to recover. . . . we really weren't functioning as a normal family."
"It's impossible to describe. These experiences are really beyond words. It's a landscape you enter, like nowhere you've gone before. You never really leave that landscape. It becomes what you use to measure the rest of your life by."
Eventually, Hart's mother recovered, and Hart left her little town, and Ireland altogether, for school in London. "I didn't want to go, and I figured, 'If I'm leaving, I'm leaving completely.' "
So she left, forsaking her native Ireland and a town where everyone knew her story for a place where no one even knew her name. She never spoke of the deaths "for years and years."
Once in London, she abandoned plans to study art and writing. "It was too dangerous . . . creative processes are very dangerous," she says. "When you play the great parts, like Medea, it's like climbing a mountain. You become someone in extremis. It's a very dangerous journey, and I thought I was too psychologically fragile to do it."
Instead, she acquired "a normal life," leaving school for a job in a publishing house. Eventually, she became responsible for 17 magazines, most of them business and medical periodicals.
"I loved it. It was very unemotional, and it suited me down to the ground," Hart says.
She married Paul Buckley, a publisher, "a very nice man," in 1972, and had a son, Adam, now 19.
"And then, sadly, my marriage went wrong," she says. They divorced, amicably, in 1983.
But as her marriage ended, art was gradually taking its place in her life.
First, she produced a series of poetry readings, where famous English actors would read the works of famous poets. Then she started producing plays, in London's West End. In 1984, she married advertising magnate Maurice Saatchi, whom she'd known for decades, since they both worked in the same publishing firm. They have a son, Edward, who's 10.
And then, finally, came Damage, Hart's acclaimed tale of a man who becomes obsessed with his son's fiancee, and who pays a terrible price for his obsession.
Damage became the prototype for its two successors - it's a short, sharp, shocking book in which everything seems to happen on a grander scale than, say, your own life. All the emotions are oversize, all the characters are larger than life, and when something goes wrong, it goes tragically, horrendously wrong. In a Josephine Hart novel, nobody's ever a little interested in someone else - they're either madly, passionately, dangerously in love, or in the throes of an equally mad, passionate, dangerous hatred. You'd never see a character lose his keys. But plenty lose their lives.
"Why do you look at the world and see such cruelty?" one fan asked, after a reading by Hart at the Borders bookstore in Bryn Mawr.
Hart's answer was simple. "All of us, if we look at life, know these stories," she says. "But we keep them at a distance. All I do is take the veils away. I want to strip away the semi-lies we tell ourselves."
She was "nicely middle-aged" when Damage came out in 1991, and seeming, on the surface, an unlikely author for a book that encompasses incest, suicide, adultery, sadomasochism and one of the more horrifying climaxes in recent fiction.
But Josephine Hart says she's never been interested in surfaces. Rather, she wants to probe the uncomfortable, dangerous places that lie underneath.
"I've always been interested in goodness and how it's undermined," she says. "In Damage, I was interested in the fall of a good man. I decided there were two things that could destroy someone good - erotic obsession and grief."
The novel was a smashing success with the public, though critics either loved it for its plot (which was praised as suspenseful, thrilling and intense), or hated it for the writing (which has been described as lurid and mannered).
The book became a best-seller in England and America, and was optioned for the movies. The 1993 film starred Jeremy Irons.
"I tell this story and it sounds like a fairy tale," she says with a smile. "Damage struck a chord. . . . it had some power, something that even I don't understand."
It also prompted many readers - many of them "eminent old men," she says - to tell Hart their own stories of erotic obsession.
Which begs the question - has Hart herself been the object of such an attraction?
"People ask," she says. "I smile and say, 'I totally understand the
emotions.' And that is as far as I'll go. I think if you are the mother of two children, a certain amount of discretion is called for."