Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone

A review of the literary novel Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone.

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Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone is the story of Seb, whose wife Leda dies in a tragic boating accident involving a swan. In the wake of her death he tries to uncover more about the person she was before him and what their relationship really meant.

I want to put my face between his hands and inhale the smell of Leda’s life: the polish on the arms of chairs, the crushed needles of the pines, the rough fur of dogs playing under tables.

I’m going to be blunt: this book annoyed me.

I wanted to read it because the cover art was intriguing, it was praised in the Guardian, and I felt in the mood for a poetically written, emotionally tense, gently moving character piece. What I ended up reading was a laborious slog through a mess of carefully crafted images with no character, no emotion, nothing I could latch onto and actually find a way into the story.

In a way this reminded me of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, which is also, at times, a laborious slog through carefully crafted images. However, McBride’s use of language is truly inventive and arresting; even though I didn’t enjoy the book as a reader, I appreciated it as a writer. Strange Heart Beating did contain some pretty lines.

When I first met her, I found myself in a position that I had never been in before. I wanted to know her. I devoured the information she gave me about herself in a way that I had only ever experienced previously with academic subjects. I found myself closing books, closing curtains, and devoting myself to the stories she told.

But that was all it had. I wanted to read a novel, not a 194-page narrative poem, and I need more than linguistic gymnastics to engage me in a book. The plot, such as there is, consists of Seb going to Leda’s home village in Latvia and talking to her relatives, Seb wandering about feeling English and metaphorical, Seb having terribly meaningful conversations and mediocre sex with a woman called Ursula, and Seb taking a (probably also terribly meaningful) dump in the woods on a hunting trip. Seb himself has no characterisation beyond confusion, and none of his interactions with other characters felt very human or believable.

I ended up skim-reading the last 30 or so pages because there was nothing happening in the story, and what little there was happening didn’t engage me or speak to me in any way at all.

It’s been a while since I disliked a book this passionately, but Strange Heart Beating was a definite miss for me.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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