Before the Indifferent Beak
Eli Goldstone, Strange Heart Beating
Granta, 208pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781783783496
reviewed by Leon Craig
He finds a stack of letters from Leda’s cousin Olaf in Latvia that he types out and puts through Google Translate, with mixed results. Something about the insistent way Olaf signs every letter to Leda ‘your cousin, your friend’ raises a suspicion that their relationship was more tumultuous than that of ordinary cousins, and Seb eventually decides he will go to Latvia and investigate. His disbelief, common to many bereaved people, that Leda could really be gone, transforms this action from a slightly hokey quest to a poignant attempt to make his inner and outer worlds match up.
While Seb is grieving Leda, the reader is privy to sections of what seems to be a diary from her early years. We learn about her strained relationship with her mother, her lack of friends, her increasingly disturbing treatment by Olaf and the other local boys. She was as depressed as Seb, though Seb never seems to fully acknowledge this. Despite having been married to her, he barely knew anything about her life in Latvia, including that she used to be called ‘Leila’, not ‘Leda’, and the two of them only had sex when drunk. It is left ambiguous whether he resisted asking her more about herself out of a kind of fastidiousness or because both of them were so mired in their own individual misery.
Leda is already made mysterious by her death, but this enigmatic effect is diluted by the curiously lacking characterisation of the narrator. For someone who has up until this point devoted his life to the study of art history, he doesn’t seem to process very much of his experience through it. We get occasional intriguing details about Seb’s life, such as his loss of virginity to a much older woman, the fact that both his parents are already dead and that he is Jewish enough for his family to cover up mirrors as part of ritual mourning. It’s also revealed that Seb speaks sufficiently good Russian to play cards with Olaf and his friends, though we never find out how he learnt it or whether his identity as a Jew colours his interactions in Latvia; the other characters never mention it, so presumably he has not told them. This mystery of Seb’s character is one of the novel’s weaker features, though perhaps it is meant to be a result of his bereavement. Seb tells us ‘Grief is the aggressive displacement of the self from a known universe to another.’ In any case, the reader cannot make a cohesive narrative from the random details of his life, and neither can Seb, no matter how much he might wish to.
The moment in which a swan crashes into and then dies outside the cabin where Seb is soon to have his first post-bereavement sexual encounter is so utterly, iridescently weird that it comes full circle into plausibility again. Of course this would happen to Seb. Goldstone is very good at the emotional territory between absurd and heartbreaking. At one point, Seb is charged with breaking the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death to a devastated Latvian stranger who was trying to be friendly by shouting a list of English things at him.
The Latvian set pieces are the strongest part of the book, like Lermontov or Gogol updated for this century. In a little clubhouse with burnt carpet, Olaf and his friends continually change card games to ensure Seb’s comparative sobriety cannot afford him too much of an advantage. On his one and only hunting trip, he is made so nervous by tensions between the men that he misses seeing them shoot (and lose) a wolf because he is shitting himself behind a tree, but he then goes on to accidentally kill a wild boar with their car on the way home. His helplessness in going along with Olaf’s bizarre plan to punish another local man for their collective sins against Leda feels like the logical conclusion to his failure to make sense of Leda’s death.
Some of the novel’s worst events happen in the Latvian woods, but it is here that Leda seems closest, both in the encounter with the second swan and in Olaf’s sudden fear that she can see what they do. Olaf tells him that ‘Leila’ always used to hide in the woods when she was a girl and then accuses Seb of knowing nothing about her life before she came to England. It is as if some part of her has been fixed there after her assaults by the boys and drawn Seb back for a final confrontation with a truth never uttered during their marriage. Still, it is questionable whether Seb fully understands the significance of his actions in the final events of the novel.
Strange Heart Beating’s power comes from the void at its centre. Leda’s words are there the whole time, unread by or unreadable for Seb. Her diary entries describe the abuse without naming it, and Seb gropes around desperately for the obliterated consciousness of Leda, the only source of the truth about Olaf and the other men. These are things too terrible and inexplicable to relate directly; they can never be discussed between them now. Both Seb and Leda’s narratives are distorted by their proximity to the void: ‘The darkness is a room that only we inhabit . . . nothing less than the reminder that unsafe spaces still exist, are waiting to engulf us whole, if we are only able to bring ourselves to step into them.’