BOOK REVIEW: Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone

Eli Goldstone delivers a poignant tale of love, loss, regret and grief. A story that is empathetic and written in such a brutally honest way that the reader can’t help but be absorbed into the arrestingly brilliant ride that Goldstone executes in a refreshing, no holds bar kind of way. It is truly a debut that will live long in the memory and should garner praise, plaudits and awards in the year ahead…cough…cough…Dylan Thomas Prize.

The story itself is very simplistic, there are no huge plot points, nor are there casts of characters one has to remember how they fit into the story arch; but that is what, in my opinion makes the book so striking, heart wrenching and deeply personal. The story in its simplest form is about a man named Seb, whose wife, Leda is killed (or as he thinks) murdered by a swan.

‘Seb you can’t murder every swan you see. You have to start thinking clearly.’

After her death, he learns that her name, the name he had called her all their married life was in fact a lie. He soon finds out that Leda’s life, the childhood she recounted was also a lie, causing him to think how well did he know his wife? These lies lead him on a journey of discovery taking him to his wife’s homeland where he hopes to discover the real Leda. The Leda that was hidden from him, but for what reason? He hopes to rediscover his wife, his partner, his life.

With his heart full of grief and a journey set before him, this is where the voyage truly begins.

The book opens with a beautiful extract from poet W.B. Yeats which perfectly sets the scene for the opening of the book, conjuring all the imagery needed to ensure that the start of the book is a memorable one.

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

B. Yeats

If this poem does not draw you in, the sheer brilliance of Goldstone and her prose will do the job.

Although this is her debut novel Goldstone writes like a seasoned professional, delivering eloquently structured sentences that at time appear to be works of art rather than words on the page. Her close attention to structure was also brilliant, there are no chapters within the book which is a masterstroke, at first I didn’t realise when I was reading but I feel that the use of not having these interrupt the stories flow made it a captivating and compellingly readable. Throughout the novel, we are offered excerpts of Leda’s diary that help to punctuate the text and give it additional structure and these delicate insights helps to inform the reader of the mystery that is Seb’s dead wife Leda.

‘Eventually something equally strange happened, although not until some time later. I started to become annoyed when some new fact surfaced. I became convinced I knew all there was to know, and when I was proved wrong, I grew angry. I accused her of fabricating things simply to prove to me that she was independent, that she existed without me and my knowledge of her. I refused to believe that she liked Verdi. How can you like Verdi, I asked her (sniffing the open milk carton to see if it had soured), since you’re not an idiot? I interrupted a joke she was telling, by waving my arm between her face and the face of her friend and challenging the premise of the joke, which was that she had once lived in a flat in Walthamstow. I can’t remember what the punchline was. In short, I acted badly, because the idea that I knew her was so central to my loving her. I knew her in a way that I knew nobody else. She, and everything she had ever done, and ever would do, belonged to me as much as it did to her.’

The opening of the book is quite brilliant and reminds me of a Cohen Brother movie. It’s black comedy is superbly crafted by Goldstone and would have you believing you are about to embark on a strange journey of ‘The Big Fargo For Old Men after Reading’ kind. However, Goldstone soon reigns this in but continues to offer us flashes of her wonderful humour throughout the rest of the book causing me to chuckle away to myself at numerous occasions.

‘The wife of the youngest son was also called Marta. She died when a chandelier fell in the home of the family for whom she had cleaned every day for twelve years. She was treated fairly and paid well. The chandelier fell only inches from crushing her crouching frame and she went home and told her husband and they prayed. Unbeknownst to Marta and her husband, she had picked up a shard in her heel. The wound grew badly infected under a layer of sloppily administered dressing and she dies of sepsis, after a few days of confusion and anxiety and rapid breathing that her husband found alarming but also strangely alluring. They made love several times before she died, her chest slick with sweat and her eyes tolling back in her head.’

Seb is a charmingly splendid protagonist whom I enjoyed spending time with. Goldstone has constructed him with all the skill, patience and subtle cadences as a potter would with an intricate vase; ensuring that he can stand on his own and support the weight of the book. Seb is both strongly voiced and believable making him a protagonist who continues to breathe long after the book has been finished. However, all of the characters that make up ‘Strange Heart Beating’ are all well thought out, developed and it’s clear to see that Goldstone has a tremendous ear for conversation; enabling her characters to interact with one another without it ever seeming forced. Goldstone’s narration of the piece through the eyes, mind and heart of Seb is also a joy to behold.

‘I think of her eyes, threaded pinkly. And her forehead, how it would ridge in anger and in moments of sexual euphoria. Her face on the pillow, her gaze, direct and faintly mocking. Her hairline. The dark wisps that caught beneath her wrists and writhed on the bed sheets. What I wouldn’t give to have my hands behind her knees now, lifting her towards me again. Her breasts flattened and spilling.’

The structure of the novel is masterfully handled by Goldstone who ramps up the tension in the final third of the book, which had me second guessing myself at numerous points, grief can play funny games with the mind and in particular the mind of our guide through this story, Seb. I found the way Goldstone was able to lead her reader and her ability to say much without spelling it all out was reminiscent of the brilliance of Daphne du Maurier and her novel ‘The Parasites’.

‘Because it was sudden, because she didn’t die on a bed in front of me, in stages, because I couldn’t hold her hand and watch her eyes close, there is a part of me that thinks that Leda just disappeared. It is like a magic trick that I refuse to believe, but, like a child, am startled by.’

Strange Heart Beating’ is a terrific debut, it is both captivating and alluring like an Anglerfish, and it draws you in with devastating consequences. The novel does lull in the middle third but I feel it is to introduce characters and help develop the plot, nevertheless in my opinion this doesn’t hamper what Goldstone delivers; it in a way aids her storytelling and enables her to write deep, realistic characters such as Ursula, Olaf and Georgs who take the story into its magnificent conclusion.

Eli Goldstone is a bright star in the Granta crown and is a career we will be paying close attention to and we look forward to seeing this rich talent develop in the coming years. ‘Strange Heart Beating’ in my personal opinion would be a great candidate for next year’s Dylan Thomas Prize judging on the calibre of the books and writers that were nominated this year, Eli Goldstone and ‘Strange Heart Beating’ wouldn’t be out of place to be named alongside them.

It is a book that connects with the Strange Heart Beating within each of us!

Eli Goldstone

Eli Goldstone photo

Eli Goldstone lives in London and is a graduate of the City University Creative Writing (Novels) MA. Her debut novel, Strange Heart Beating, was published by Granta.

Strange Heart Beating was published by Granta on 4th May 2017.

You can purchase a copy of Strange Heart Beating from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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To discover more about Granta click here

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Review by Ross Jeffery

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