Seb’s beautiful, beloved wife Leda has been killed by a swan. He discovers a package of letters written to and from a man he has never heard of, Olaf, and heads to Latvia to learn more about her past. Eli Goldstone’s debut novel, Strange Heart Beating, is a complex, sharp and potent exploration of Seb’s story, and the wider issues it represents. ‘All stories have a beginning,’ says Olaf when he tells Seb that his wife went by the name of Leda, not Leila. In Goldstone’s debut novel, published on Granta, that idea is tested. Where do we start?
The plot is tight, and the themes strong. Like Seb the reader is ‘an intruder of sorts, a time travelling interloper,’ an ‘anthropologist’ studying a group. It might be a book about life and death, given the circumstances in which we arrive at this point in the story and the experience of grief, ‘the aggressive displacement of the self from a known universe to another.’ It could be about relationships, how the web of loves and likes creates the life we live, and how much we really know about someone else: ‘I wanted someone at the funeral to tell me about the life she lived before I knew her. In that way, I thought I could continue knowing her, could continue with the journey that we had started. I’d simply take a detour, I thought. I’d go backwards.’
Memories and their ever shifting nature are powerful themes. Seb finds himself playing games to capture Leila’s image, and that image changing. He is seeking the truth, but that truth shifts. He needs to know facts where there aren’t any.
‘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.’
The language is compelling, with Seb’s voice expressing life’s truths. ‘I seek for meaning in every miserable glint and shadow,’ says Seb, and Goldstone offers this meaning in a way that never seems hackneyed. It doesn’t wrap up with a neat plot, but is suggestive and uncertain, like the topics Goldstone discusses. The unknowability of life and others continues on beyond the final page. The beat goes on.