Mysterious Obsessions

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The Swan Thieves By Elizabeth KostovaPages and pages of text and reels of celluloid have been devoted to the subject of obsession. Without it a great deal of art would not been made, or poems written – think of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and the various other femme fatales of fiction. The Swan Thieves is the story of a man with an obsession that seems to have driven him to the edge. Robert Oliver a talented painter has attacked a painting. That is where the Swan Thieves begins – unless you count a prologue in the snow – and the rest of the plot unravels from there.

Why would a painter almost attack a painting? Robert Oliver manages to call a halt at the nick of time, giving himself up for psychological observation. He is committed to a select institution called Goldengrove where he becomes the patient of a psychiatrist with artistic interests. Marlow, the psychiatrist finds an incredible challenge in Oliver.

The painter does not speak or show any signs of acknowledging Marlow’s presence. However, when he is presented with art materials he begins to sketch a dark haired woman in period dress over and over again. A woman who is so lifelike that she can only be someone that the artist knew. Marlowe gradually finds himself turning into a detective – and presumably there’s a bow here to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow, though not too obvious a one.

On the pretext of trying to uncover the secret behind Oliver’s behaviour, he starts to delve into the women he knew, most notably his ex-wife Kate, a sand dune haired blonde, and his ex-girlfriend Mary who has magnificent mahogany hair. None of them fit the woman whom Oliver is obsessively drawing and painting. To add to the mystery are a series of antique letters written in French which Oliver has been jealously safeguarding. Marlow has the letters translated one by one in an attempt to see whether they throw any light on the mystery.

And Marlow’s observations are made in painterly language because the man feels that there is something in common between artists and psychiatrists since they both observe real life. He talks of ‘a leaf, a new paintbrush, the flesh of an orange, and the details of my wife’s beauty, a glistening at the corners of her eyes, the soft hair of her arms in our living-room’s lamplight when she sits reading’.

Reader’s of Kostova’s first book, The Historian will be familiar with her technique of alternating chapters – in the first part of the book between Marlow’s first person narrative and the letters from the Paris of the 1870’s. To this is later added Mary’s narrative, Kate’s dialogues with Marlowe and the story of Beatrice de Clerval, an impressionist.

“It’s a good book for a hot afternoon when you can’t go out and you can lie down in a cool room and play guessing games with the plot…”

All the people in the book, whether in the past or the present, are painters and all of them talk about the craft of painting. Unfortunately when it gets to this stage it becomes difficult to distinguish between the individual voices and in an attempt to cover ground Kostova uses phrases like ‘beautifully real grass’ or ‘fluffy midsummer clouds’ that seem to be writerly shortcuts for covering ground. One could say of course in Kostova’s defence that human responses to nature and art are fairly consistent and she does have some careful observations like ‘the sprout of a plant that has grown under a log’.

The Historian was a trailblazer that sold remarkably fast for an American fiction debut and it was as long as The Swan Thieves. People went through the story of Vlad the Impaler and tolerated the length because it spanned 14th century Europe and modern times and added to the vampire cult passion. Whether they will do the same for The Swan Thieves is a question mark, mainly because the story does not really deserve so much time devoted to it – Kostova has a quaint habit of holding up the plot while she explores the romantic nuances between the characters.

However, the world is full of readers who like to curl up with an entertaining pot-boiler – because pot-boiler it is – and shut out the rest of mundane every day life. It’s a good book for a hot afternoon when you can’t go out and you can lie down in a cool room and play guessing games with the plot until Kostova finally reveals the real secret behind all that obsessive painting.

The Swan Thieves: A Novel by Elizabeth Kostova
Published by Little, Brown and Company

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Swan Thieves (The): A Novel
by Elizabeth Kostova

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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