Who was it that eventually lost his mind after watching a horse being beaten? Every so often I remember this. Nietzsche, obviously. I can’t imagine how one could possibly confirm the veracity of such a thing. Perhaps he was about to fall down mad and a horse happened to be beaten in front of him. This is the sort of thing I ruin dinner parties with.
I suppose at that very moment, I related to our protagonist – Seb – the same way I relate to socially awkward people who recite gruesome facts at the wrong time. Seb has recently lost his wife, Leda, to a Swan who attacked her in a lake, and now he is picking up the pieces. When we lose someone, there are the days, weeks, perhaps even years where we can’t move past what happened. Time seems to stop because that person – or people—are no long present in our lives. We have no motivation to want to move on, but rather to stay stagnant, and hold on to whatever is left of that person. But as time grows, the feeling of absence takes its toll and you begin to forget. Other ideas and experiences fill up your mind and you begin to forget that person. You forget the things they said and what they liked to wear. Memories become muddled as your life progresses. But what if you realized you never knew them?
This is what Seb realizes throughout the novel that he never knew Leda and what she was like before or even after they met. The secrets she kept of a past that was, at times, traumatizing. Seb travels to Latvia to discover more about his wife and finds her cousin, Olaf, who was her main mail correspondent for quite some time. Olaf slowly reveals more and more about Leda that Seb wasn’t prepared to hear. At times funny, but at other times difficult to read, Strange Heart Beating was not what I was expecting in terms of pacing, plot, or character development, but it might still be an interesting and poignant tale for some. This is the debut novel by Eli Goldstone, who has a bright future in front of her. She took the classic W.B. Yeats poem, “Leda and the Swan” and expanded it into a novel.
“Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?”
Although Goldstone took inspiration from the poem, allusions to the poem were few and far between as Goldstone wanted the concentrate on the protagonist. Where Yeats excelled in this poem, were the vivid imagery and intense metaphors to rape and mythology. The poem follows the all-powerful Greek God, Zeus, disguised as a swan rapes a young woman, Leda. The poem holds no boundaries in language and graphic imagery. “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still/Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed/By the dark webs…” Although in the mythology Zeus seduces Leda, Yeats takes it to a new level where Zeus rapes her, to which later Leda gives birth to Helen of Troy. Helen’s life and legacy is, arguably, blamed for much more than she was responsible for. I digress.
The writing was lovely and funny at times, but overall, it felt that it dropped off somewhere around the middle. As I kept reading it, I felt less and less invested in the story of Seb’s discovery of Leda’s past. I felt as though this would have been better suited as a fantastic short story, or a shorter piece. That being said, although the story faltered and the ending was anti-climactic, I know Goldstone will have a fantastic career as a writer because her writing style is beautiful and it reels you in. I am curious to see how she will grow with her future works.
This book was graciously supplied by Granta. Thank you!