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Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Swan Thieves

Kostova, Elizabeth.  The Swan Thieves.

The author of The Historian has created a completely different world but with much of the same style in this recent release.

When celebrated artist Robert Oliver is discovered in an attempt to vandalize a painting, he is held for psychiatric examination.  His care is eventually transferred to Andrew Marlow at Golden Grove psychiatric hospital ("Margaret, are you grieving /over Goldengrove unleaving?" one of my favorite poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins).

Marlow finds himself becoming engrossed in Oliver's situation; he himself is a painter and his need to find out the reasons for the attempted assault by a painter on a painting becomes an engrossing puzzle.  He steps way outside of his normal treatment patterns when Oliver retreats into silence--how can Marlow treat him if he refuses to talk?  Marlow begins what becomes a kind of personal journey, as he interviews Oliver's former wife, a former faculty member, a former lover.  His journey becomes physical as well as he travels to Mexico and Paris in search of information.

Who is the model for the paintings that have caused Oliver's difficulties with first his wife and then his lover?  The mystery kept me enthralled, as did Kostova's language and ability to create atmosphere.  A novel of obsession, love, and art that moves from present to past and back again.  I loved it!

(Must read Conrad's Lord Jim -- narrated by Marlow.  I've read Heart of Darkness many times -- also narrated by Marlow -- and made some connections.  However, Kostova mentions that the book is a homage to Conrad and Lord Jim, specifically.)

Fiction.  Psychological/Mystery.  2010.  561 pages.


  1. Oo. An homage to Conrad? I was so excited about reading this book, but that makes me a bit nervous - I didn't care for the parts of Heart of Darkness I've read.

  2. Jenny -- Don't let that stop you from trying The Swan Thieves. I would not have connected it to Conrad without Kostova's comment.

    I do love Heart of Darkness, but the love developed over a number of years. It wasn't until I began teaching it (and connecting it to T.S.Eliot, Dante's Inferno and Apocalypse Now) that I realized that each time I read it, I discovered more.

    However, I've never read Lord Jim and must do so, as this is the novel Kostova specifically mentions.

  3. Another book that references the Hopkins poem you mention is Goldengrove by Francine Prose. It's gorgeous!

  4. Carolyn - Thanks! I'll look for it!