Monday 11 December 2017

Review: The Swan Thieves By Elizabeth Kostova

Losing the plot but art steals the show

Elizabeth Kostova's weighty vampire saga The Historian became the biggest selling hardback novel in US history when it was published in 2005. Five years later, she's returned with The Swan Thieves, another doorstop of a novel (564 pages) that, like her debut, moves forwards and backwards in time to tell a tangled tale of obsession and mystery. Unfortunately, like her debut, it's all a bit turgid.

It gets off to a dramatic start in Washington DC, when Dr Andrew Marlowe meets his new patient Robert Oliver. Oliver is a celebrated artist who has attacked a 19th century painting in the National Gallery of Art with a knife.

During their first meeting, Oliver tells Marlowe: "I did it for her. . . the woman I loved." But he doesn't say who this mysterious woman is. He does, however, give Marlowe permission to talk to his friends and family -- and then, he just stops speaking. He also gives Marlowe his most treasured possessions -- a bundle of letters written by a French artist called Beatrice de Clerval in the 1870s.

Intrigued and unsettled by his suddenly silent patient, Marlowe decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own (extremely unprofessional) hands and heads off to meet Oliver's ex-wife, Kate.

She takes up the narrative and tells us how the marriage gradually collapsed because of Oliver's obsession with a mysterious dark-haired woman, whom he painted compulsively again and again.

Suspecting this woman is Oliver's mistress Mary, Marlowe tracks her down -- but will she lead him to the truth?

Meanwhile, the narrative flashes back to 1870s France, tracing the development of the relationship between Beatrice de Clerval and her husband's uncle, also a painter. The reader knows that these two narrative strands will come together eventually -- but how?

There are flashes of genuine beauty and tenderness in Kostova's novel, and she writes evocatively and effectively about visual art (which, as anyone who ever studied art history knows, is harder to do than you might think).

The many paintings that decorate her prose come vividly to life; by the end of the novel the reader can almost see them -- Robert Oliver's portraits of Beatrice, and Beatrice's own landscape paintings and domestic scenes. And yet the whole thing falls strangely flat.

Kostova isn't without storytelling skills, and you can't help wanting to know what will happen and why Oliver is the way he is. But you also can't help wishing that Kostova would just hurry up and get to the point. Instead she lingers over trivial details, which drag the plot along.

This isn't helped by the leaden dialogue and prissy, utterly humourless characters, who are all unconvincingly old-fashioned (every one of them disdains email and prefers to communicate by post instead).

Robert Oliver himself is perhaps the most disappointing.

We see him through the eyes of others, and are never allowed into his head -- which could have made him a fascinating character. Instead, we're baffled as to why women find this surly boor so irresistible and mesmerising.

But what really lets the book down is the ending.

It's not spoiling anything to say that we do discover why Oliver attacked the painting in the gallery. But the mystery that drives the narrative remains unsolved.

(Little Brown, £16.99)

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