Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone

SHBI loved this novel. I couldn’t sleep one night because I was trying to think of the right way to describe the way it reads. To me it feels as if the story has been uncovered, carefully dug from the earth and smoothed free of soil with the gentle strokes of an archaeological brush. Many stories feel pieced together, made – mine in particular – but this story feels as if it has been waiting to be set free of the rough unhewn marble.

I don’t want to suggest that everything felt perfect. Both the beginning and the end sounded awkwardly in my ears. The start seems self-conscious and I wanted more from the ending, but perhaps only because I’m greedy – I prefer suggestive endings and that of Strange Heart Beating is more suggestive, truer to the uncertainties of life, than final. However, the novel really is enticing. The hum of our most ancient stories plays quietly in the background, imprinting upon the modern story of pain and loss so that Seb’s grief – his wife Leda has just died, drowned after being knocked from her boat by a swan – deepens the groove in the floor of our understanding of what it is to feel love and loss; in the same way that Leda’s story replays old motifs to create a new song.

I don’t want to tell out the plot, for though there is a strong line of plot, the novel is more about our desire to own the narratives of our loved ones. We long to control their stories, to shape them in ways that help us understand our own. To quote Seb’s narrative:

‘It’s debatable how much of memory is fabrication. I believe there’s been research done to refute the idea that these two things come from the exact same place. But this notion speaks to my sensibilities. It will be a sad day for me if they manage to pinpoint the exact split. How wonderful to me to imagine a flush system that panders to our need to own and to order and to collect events and occasions as if they belong to us. As if we are anything but slack-jawed witnesses to the terrific road traffic accident that is the world, occurring.’ (p60)

Given this desire to collect, order and own experience, it is unsurprising that gods and caves and the natural force of the hunt and the forest play so heavily through the emotional and physical landscape of the book. Symbolism in its wider cultural sense and in its personal intimate sense is essential for both Seb and Leda’s understanding of the world.

Alongside Seb’s first person narrative are a few of Leda’s letters which slowly reveal her story, the one Seb is so desperate to piece together. In one she writes about the significance of being barefoot, about how one experience stains another and she says, ‘It’s impossible for my moments to exist in isolation from those that have come before.’

The struggle to control how we are read is central to Leda. Seb discovers, through finding unopened letters sent from a man living in her home town in Latvia, that there are many things about Leda he didn’t know. He travels to Latvia to try and discover this other Leda and the landscape around her home town lends further drama to the unfolding narrative and chimes with the European feel of the prose. Eli Goldstone manages to set a European feel for literature, one less boringly attached to contemporary realism, against the awkward, academic and English sensibilities of Seb. It makes for a very rye and intriguing novel. While Leda seeks to control how she is read, Seb seeks to reinterpret his relationship with Leda in a way that absolves him of her loss.

I’m not going to write more, despite a longing to keep the novel and its meaning alive at the ends of my fingers and in the connections in my mind, because I don’t want to spoil it for you all. Go and buy Strange Heart Beating and let me know what you think. Hopefully I’ll be able to offer you more insights into Eli Goldstone’s writing in a few weeks if I’m lucky enough to interview her for Author QH.

I’ll be reading Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma next.

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