Even if it weren’t for the beautiful cover of this debut novel by Eli Goldstone, I’d still have been drawn to reading “Strange Beating Heart” because it’s partly set in Latvia. Some of my ancestors came from Latvia and I still have relatives there, but I’ve not yet visited. So I have a fascination with this location and I’m curious to read literature that’s set there. The story begins with Seb mourning the loss of his young artistic wife who died in a freak lake accident when her boat was overturned by an angry swan. Swans are really the most beautifully graceful looking birds, but they have the worst tempers; I was once chased up a tree by one! It’s striking that Seb’s wife Leda is killed by a swan because in the Greek myth Leda is a Spartan queen who is seduced by Zeus who comes to her in the form of a swan. The symbolism of swans is played out in different ways throughout the novel to express forms of vulnerability, eroticism and shape-shifting. However, this isn’t a fantasy or mythic story, but a poignant realistic tale of isolation, grief and estrangement.
Seb finds his wife’s loss overwhelming and it leads him to increasingly irrational behaviour. When he happens across a series of unopened letters addressed to his wife from a man in Latvia he embarks to Leda’s home country to discover more about his late wife’s past. His journey to the countryside where Leda came from reveals how little he really knew about his wife. But it’s not presented as if Leda harboured some deep shameful secret. The story raises is more concerned with unsettling existential questions about how much or little we ever really understand about the partner we make a life with. The account of Seb’s journey is interspersed with diary entries from Leda about her youth and eventual move to the UK. This is an interesting structure which reminded me slightly of the recent novel “Swimming Lessons” where the story alternates between letters from a missing woman and an account of her family in the present.
The effect of Goldstone’s novel is more melancholic because rather than building to a revelation or feeling of independence, these scattered diary entries seem to ask if we can ever really be understood or known to ourselves or others. Not only does Leda come across as a stranger to her husband, but also to her unstable mother and other people who are supposedly close to her. There are also wayward figures of an enterprising German woman, a lonely B&B landlady and a hunter who frequently drinks himself into a stupor. While Seb’s interactions with them and struggles with the language inevitably produce some comic effects, it also adds to his lingering sense of isolation. Both the primary stories about Leda’s early life and Seb’s quest through Latvia build to dramatic conclusions, but this novel felt much more concerned with raising questions about identity rather than creating a thickly plotted tale. It’s an emotionally complex and unsettling book.