Seb has a grip on her story and its aesthetics; he knows how it should go. Except that he doesn't. Sorting through her belongings after her death, he comes across a packet of unopened letters from a man whom Leda has never mentioned. It is a loose detail in the thread of his narrative that, when pulled, unravels the whole story of his marriage. Who is this stranger who knew her so well? Why did she flee her home village in Latvia? What happened to her as a young woman in London? Who, Seb wonders, was his wife?
Floundering professionally and sunk by grief, he decides to travel to Latvia to find her. He is met, instead, with the living ghosts of her past, all of whom knew a fragment of Leda - but none of whom are willing to share their secrets with him.
A darkly funny and seductive story that confronts the black undercurrent of possession inherent in love, and the impossibility of ever truly knowing even those dearest to us.
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By Rachel Redford on 08-10-17
Can you ever know the one you love?
I was intrigued by this title, not only by the elegant swan-woman cover design but by the extravagant claims as a ‘stunning debut novel’. After the first half hour or so, I was thinking that I would return it to Audible. It was confusing and muddled and Seb, the stricken academic-widow of Leda, seemed merely tedious. But there was enough as I continued with it to be intriguing. Eli Goldstone’s language was vibrant and she had a headful of ideas. I persevered to the end.
Strange Heart Beating is a great title taken from Yeats’s poem (which unlike this novel really IS stunning) recreating the impregnating of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan. This myth is at the centre of Goldstone’s novel and that’s one of the problems with it. Leda went on to hatch children from Zeus’s eggs and the symbolism of eggs, childlessness, water and swans permeates the whole far too intrusively, merely clogging an already over-full agenda. Seb’s beloved Latvian wife had been killed by a swan on a London boating lake and that’s just the start of it.
After Leda dies, Seb finds a stash of unopened letters from ‘Olaf’, someone Leda had never spoken of. He travels to Latvia to explore Leda’s roots and find out exactly who she was. The long section in Latvia is a vigorous and violent portrayal of rural Latvia as Seb finds Olaf (Leda’s cousin, it turns out) and his dreadful sidekick Georgi. Straightaway he finds that Leda was really Lena, but that’s just the start of his learning the depth of the unknowability surrounding Lena, this stranger to whom he was married.
There are some truly horrible scenes (hunting the black wolf and cutting him up; searching for Georgi) which seem to belong to another genre altogether. The theme of telling stories / fairy tale / myth overpowers the characters. There’s just too much in the novel: Leda/Lena’s diary entries; Olaf’s letters… but the greatest failure for me was that not one of the characters is likeable and quite a few are extremely unpleasant.
Tom Lawrence is an excellent narrator and without him I think I would not have persevered. He had a tough job with the accents (I don’t know what Latvian English sounds like, but have heard a lot of Russian so it sounded right), and he made Olaf and the various Latvians larger than life. He was good, too, on Leda’s voice. Goldstone described Olaf calling like ‘ a bear trapped in a sewer pipe’ and I’m sure if a bear were trapped in a sewer pipe he would sound just like Tom Lawrence’s Latvian English!
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