Tag Archives: Eli Goldstone

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2018: Part Two

Cover imageWhereas the first part of April’s paperback preview had its feet firmly planted in the States, this second instalment wanders around Europe beginning in the UK with Elizabeth Day’s The Party. Scholarship boy Martin Gilmour meets Ben Fitzmaurice at Burtonbury School, becoming firm friends with him despite their wildly differing backgrounds. Over the next twenty-five years, these two are bound together both by friendship and by a secret about Ben that Martin is determined to keep. However, as the blurb hints, things may be about to change when ‘at Ben’s 40th birthday party, the great and the good of British society are gathering to celebrate in a haze of champagne, drugs and glamour’. Sebastian Faulks is quoted as finding it ‘witty, dark and compelling’.

Over the North Sea in Denmark, Ellinor, the recently widowed narrator of Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy, stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner. Ellinor and Georg had been married for decades but she’s never quite shrugged off the feeling that she’s leading Anna’s life. Now that he’s dead there’s no one she wishes to talk to except Anna. At the heart of this quietly powerful, beautifully crafted novella is a loving, forgiving friendship. It may be a meditation on love and loss yet the title is a reminder that life goes on.

East across the Baltic to Latvia for Eli Goldstone’s Strange Heart Beating in which Seb takes himself off to the birthplace of his beautiful wife Leda after she drowns in the lake at her local park, her boat capsized by a startled swan. Grief and how well we know those we choose to share our lives with are explored in this witty and original piece of fiction which has a rich vein of dark humour running through it nicely offsetting its sombre subject.

We’re turning back on ourselves and heading for Ireland with Molly McCloskey’s When Light is Like Water which rounds off April’s paperbacks. This slim, quietly brilliant novel tells the story of Alice who came to Ireland from Oregon as a young woman and fell in love with an Irishman. Decades later, back from her job with an NGO at a Kenyan refugee camp and blindsided with grief at her mother’s death, Alice finds herself obsessively thinking about her brief marriage.

That’s it for April’s second batch of paperbacks. A click on the first title will take you to a more detailed synopsis and to my reviews for the last three should you want to know more. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks they’re here. New titles are here.

Six Degrees of Separation – from Wild Swans to The Invisible Woman #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Wild Swans. Subtitled ‘Three Daughters of China’, it’s Jung Chang’s family history, beginning before the arrival of Communism with her grandmother. I sold shedloads of this when I was a bookseller. It was hugely popular and not an easy read, either. The sight of its original cover still catapults me back to those days.

Which leads me to Eli Goldstone’s Strange Heart Beating, published earlier in the year adorned with one of the most striking covers I’ve seen for some time. One look at it tells you that the myth of Leda and the Swan has to be in there somewhere. The novel explores grief, love and secrets through the recently widowed Seb who takes himself off to Latvia, the birthplace of his beautiful wife Leda where he finds he hardly knew her at all.

The theme of Leda and the Swan takes me to Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop in which Melanie’s puppeteer uncle stages a performance of the myth with his niece playing the part of Leda, assaulted by a monstrous mechanical swan. It’s a vividly memorable scene, both in the book and in the TV adaptation which starred Tom Bell as a terrifying Uncle Philip.

Carter died well before her time as did her close friend Lorna Sage whose memoir Bad Blood came close to Wild Swans in its popularity. Sexually alluring yet desperately naïve, Sage became pregnant at sixteen. Determined to continue with her studies, she took her A-levels shortly after giving birth to her daughter. She won a scholarship to Durham University where both she and her teenage husband gained Firsts.

Which leads me to Helen Oyeyemi who also managed to secure a university place despite producing her first novel while studying for her A-levels. The Icarus Girl, in which a little girl has a particularly malicious imaginary friend, is quite possibly the most terrifying piece of fiction I’ve ever read. Admittedly, I’m a coward but Lesley Glaister, no slouch at putting the frighteners on her readers, described it as ‘the most haunting and disturbing novel I’ve ever read’.

Oyeyemi’s novels leads me to Michael Frayn’s Headlong whose narrator convinces himself that he’s found a missing work by Pieter Bruegel, the celebrated artist who painted The Fall of Icarus. I’m not a huge fan of Frayn’s writing but Headlong combines erudition with high farce, a cast of entertaining characters and a page-turning pace.

Frayn is married to the award-winning biographer Claire Tomalin whose book about Ellen Ternan, Dicken’s mistress, I loved. The Invisible Woman puts the man regarded by many as a national treasure in an altogether unflattering light while illuminating the plight of nineteenth-century women through Ternan.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a bestselling family history about three generations of women in China to a biography of a celebrated nineteenth-century British author’s mistress. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone: Lost in the wilderness

Cover imageWho could resist that cover? Even before I had an idea of what it was about I knew I’d pick this one up in a bookshop. One look at it tells you that the myth of Leda and the Swan has to be in there somewhere even if you don’t – and I didn’t – recognise the title as a quote from W. B. Yeats’ poem which prefaces Eli Goldstone’s debut. The novel’s as arresting as its jacket, exploring grief, love and the secrets kept in the closest of relationships through the recently widowed Seb who takes himself off to Latvia, the birthplace of his beautiful wife Leda.

Leda has drowned in the lake at her local park, her boat capsized by a startled swan. Seb, an academic already struggling with his work, is devastated. Antisocial at the best of times, he withdraws further into himself, wondering what he should do with this huge, gaping ache for his beloved wife, then discovers a cache of unopened letters, postmarked Latvia, hidden in a drawer. Leda had told him that she had no family but it appears that she had a cousin, Olaf, the sender of the letters one of which contains a lock of Leda’s hair. Seb decides to find Olaf, hoping for comfort but is faced with several puzzling revelations: it seems he hardly knew the woman who had been the centre of his world. Interspersed with Seb’s adventures in Latvia are extracts from Leda’s diary, revealing an intense, lonely and precociously bright child who grew into a troubled woman, obsessed with death.

Narrated by Seb, Goldstone’s novel has a rich vein of dark humour running through it nicely offsetting its sombre subject. Seb is cerebral, erudite and a little superior – hopelessly out-of-place in the forests of Latvia with Olaf and his friends – yet manages to engage our sympathy. He finds himself trying to throttle a swan in the park, drunkenly playing cards with Latvian hunters and fending off the attentions of his lonely landlady, all delivered in a faintly sardonic tone. He’s a man who’s asked few questions of his wife while she was alive, perhaps preferring to think that she sprang fully formed into life the day he met her. Goldstone’s writing is often striking – Seb’s fear of death ‘springs like a cat from a high shelf, to scare the living shit out of me’; Leda’s mother ‘acts as if there is a live TV audience present at all times’; a dead swan ‘smells like a pillow that has been slept on by somebody I love’. There’s a thread of myth and fairy tale running through the novel as you’d expect from that cover and title but essentially it’s about grief and how well we know those we choose to share our lives with, explored in a witty and original piece of fiction.