As I sat waiting in the Garda National Immigration Bureau the other day – my yearly punishment for not being Irish – I decided to do a little light reading. The book I had to hand was The Swan Thieves (2010), by Elizabeth Kostova. I had picked it up a while back during one book sale or another, knowing very little about it except that I loved Kostova’s 2006 novel, The Historian. Within the first few pages, I was hooked and found myself in a rather exhilarating state of immersion in a fictional world. I just didn’t want to put the book down! A good sign, I always think, and a credit to the author’s ability to create a fantasy world that is at once mundane and extraordinary. What I particularly liked about The Historian and again with The Swan Thieves is the way in which Kostova weaves together distinctly separate but also intrinsically linked historical narratives – one present day, and one nineteenth century or earlier. While The Historian told a chilling tale of tracking the real life (er… real living dead) Dracula in twenty-first century London and Budapest, The Swan Thieves narrates the strange obsession of gifted painter Robert Oliver with a dead Impressionist artist he neither knew nor had any connection to.
The story begins with Oliver’s apparently insane attack of a nineteenth-century painting of Leda and the Swan in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Stopped just as he is about to rip the painting to shreds, Robert allows himself calmly and quietly to be led away. Later, he is handed over to the competent care of middle-aged psychiatrist, Dr Andrew Marlow, but he maintains a frustrating silence he seems determined not to break, even on the doctor’s gentle insistence. In his turn, Marlow becomes increasingly focused on diagnosing Oliver’s illness and figuring out why he should have done what he did. His only clues are Oliver’s compulsive sketching and painting of a hauntingly-beautiful woman in nineteenth-century clothing and a packet of aged and yellowed letters Oliver protectively guards and re-reads continuously.
I won’t spoil the plot for interested Pue’s readers, especially as I highly recommend the book. The only thing that bothered me was that the conclusion felt incredibly rushed, not least because there was a kind of deus ex machina appearance of never-before-seen sketches and letters that revealed all. As with the typical eighteenth-century Gothic novel inspired by Ann Radcliffe – now sometimes tellingly known as the explained supernatural – I was disappointed to find every suggestion of the supernatural heretofore hinted at completely debunked. Moreover, this kind of divine intervention (which, ironically, contradicted the attempt to deny supernatural agency in the novel) also belies the reality of the everyday research experience, suggesting that the woes of academic sleuthing can be resolved by a kind of supernatural luck. Personally, I’ve always fervently hoped that I’d stumble upon a long lost treasure trove of letters, manuscripts, and unfinished novels hidden in the attic of one of Maturin’s distant relatives (contact me if you read this, please!), but it hasn’t happened yet. Hope springs eternal and all that, but still… I know such things do happen (occasionally) and are much famed in the academic community, but for the vast majority of us, we’re stuck making do without such resources. The Swan Thieves, however, suggests that it’s relatively easy and common to stumble upon the missing archival clue to your academic puzzle simply by looking up at the right moment. Perhaps I’m jaded and bitter, but that just seems either incredibly optimistic or incredibly naïve.
To be fair, the abruptness of the ending contributed to my feeling about the implausibility of this overly-serendipitous resolution. Aside from that, in fact, I very much enjoyed the novel, not least because it whiled away quite enjoyably the four hours I waited for approval to stay in Ireland another little while.