Strange Heart Beating, by Eli Goldstone

Leda is dead. She was killed by a swan — well, what else? She leaves in her wake a widower, floundering in grief. Sorting through Leda’s things, Seb finds a box of letters in Latvian, to someone named Olaf, a cousin he never knew she had: letters to a relative Leda had never talked about, about a childhood they’d never discussed, in a language Seb has never been able to speak. Unmoored by grief, Seb travels to Latvia to piece together her story. But with every day that passes in the hallucinatory wilds outside of Riga, with every curious apparition he meets from Leda’s old life, Seb comes to realise that he knows less and less about his wife.

Strange Heart Beating, by Eli Goldstone

Strange Heart Beating could easily turn into an existentialist dirge about how one person can never know another, but Seb’s narrative voice makes it more than that. Eli Goldstone has crafted a masterwork of minute bathos in Seb. A somewhat effete art historian, he is extravagantly sorrowful as only a self-confessed “slavish aesthete” could be — he carries a lock of Leda’s hair and wallows in baroque pity. He is also uniquely ill-suited to the dark corner of Latvia where Leda comes from, and where he rocks up, hapless and unwitting. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Hampstead anymore. The endless sandy beaches lose their allure when the mosquitos come out at dusk and those tangled, dark woods look less romantic when Seb is dragged along hunting wolves by cousin Olaf and his sidekick, the ambiguously sane Georgs. And all the while, the ‘real’ Leda slips further and further from Seb’s grasp.

Interspersed between Seb’s travails are snapshots of the life he came to Latvia to uncover, in the form of diary entries written by Leda herself over the course of a lifetime — snapshots that Seb never gets to see — ranging from the scribblings of a child who only dimly realises that she is having what might be termed a traumatic childhood, to the cynical posture of a young woman who realises she has to get out of Latvia, to leave the country and her own past behind.

Moving, tender, and poignant, but also richly peopled and crackling with a savage wit, Strange Heart Beating is not just a deliciously strange and oneiric attempt at answering a philosophical question — can we ever really know another person — but also a sympathetic sketch of human grief.

Eli Goldstone, Strange Heart Beating, Granta (London: 2017)

Granta kindly provided me with a review copy of Strange Heart Beating.