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Laura Pilcher, The Hub magazine onlineMany writers have declared that creativity cannot be rushed. Producing a work of creative genius is a process that cannot be hurried along by impatience, instead one must wait for the answers and inspiration to drift into one’s mind then patiently refine such ideas into a masterpiece. For Richard Aronowitz such a suggestion is certainly true as he spent over four years completing his latest novel ‘It’s Just the Beating of my Heart’. Following a childhood in which Aronowitz fell in love with the rural idyll of the Gloucestershire countryside, he wanted his second novel to be ‘a love-letter, a paean, to Gloucestershire and to the English countryside’. In fact so vital is the Gloucestershire landscape to the book, it is almost a character in itself. Aronowitz insists that ‘apart from those closest to me, nature and the English countryside are what I love most’. But far from creating a romantic homage to all that is natural, Aronowitz realised that the only way to truly capture the essence of the English countryside in his work would be ‘through the eyes of a lonely and isolated man who drew solace from the landscape’. This lonely and isolated man comes in the form of John Stack, an alcoholic in denial, struggling to cope with his wife leaving him and only seeing his daughter on alternate weekends. Aronowitz succeeds in using nature to provide ‘a kind of solace and spiritual resource to John Stack’, much as it had in Aronowitz’s own life. Although Aronowitz never wallows in self pity, clearly stating that he ‘like almost every other adult’ has experienced loss, his mother died when he was twenty-one so he drew from the emotions of this and ‘the pain of past relationship break-ups, to conjure some of the numbness and detachment that John displays’. For John Stack every aspect of his life has been lived, appreciated, remembered and endured alongside the Gloucestershire countryside. His daughter’s favourite walk is re-trodden every weekend leading ‘deeper and deeper into a no-man’s lands of pasture and rough ground’. He prefers to navigate ‘through the maze of high-hedged lanes, Cotswold dry-stone-walled roads and blind turns’ of country lanes than the quicker and more direct route of the main road. The scattered villages of Gloucestershire, which John chooses to walk between have ‘a feeling of otherworldly remoteness, of isolation’ that reflect his own inner turmoil.
Like a country walk that you love revisiting, that you need to finish as soon as possible because the best bit is just before you reach home, It’s Just the Beating of My Heart is an emotional meander through the countryside where the last chapter forces you to retrace your steps and take the walk all over again.
Jo Brandon, Beyond magazine"A deceptively paced book that appears to gently introduce the reader to John Stack and the new life he has built for himself since his wife and daughter left two years ago. It soon becomes apparent however that John is suffering a great deal of emotional turmoil; more than he cares to let on. Between his ever-increasing drinking habits, the closure of his art gallery and the appearance of a mysterious woman in his life the cracks begin to splinter through the veneer. Aronowitz is a skilful writer who is able to snare his readers without alarming them. This is a beautiful novel that will play on the mind a long time after it's finished."
Christian House, “No more half measures,” in The Independent on Sunday, 4th April 2010In his first novel Five Amber Beads, Richard Aronowitz trained his pictorial prose on the torn canvas of the Holocaust. It explored the retention of a familial history through understanding the fate of relatives and the more prosaic act of regaining ownership of Nazi-looted art. This was fitting for a writer whose day job at Sotheby's sees him dissect the dubious provenance of masterpieces. However, for his second, It's Just the Beating of my Heart, Aronowitz has moved beyond such affirmative closure to focus on what remains of a life when what has been lost simply cannot be restituted. As a study of a man teetering on the brink of insanity, it is a beautifully assured piece of work.
John Stack is a man bereft of love. He withdrew into a life of drink, work and ponderous country walks when his family left him, and two years later, things aren't exactly on the up. Business at his Mayfair art gallery is dropping in inverse proportion to his alcohol intake. While his wife stays well away, the sporadic visits to his Cotswold home of his 12-year-old-daughter prove a lifeline. Aronowitz has a perfect eye and ear for the tenderness bartered between father and daughter. However, Stack's weekdays are measured in glugs and refills. "The first glass takes the edge off the chill, the second ignites a fire that spreads its warmth outwards from my belly; by the third glass I feel that I am in perfect company."
The tipple soon has competition for his affections. In glide the slender breeches of Nicola, the mysterious widow who owns the hefty Georgian pile in his village. She's straight out of du Maurier, the kind of woman possessed of wicked duvet-moves yet equally nifty with her secateurs. Their romance is a playful waltz among the hedgerows and copses, yet their happiness is a guttering flame. Suspicion over the facts surrounding the death of Nicola's husband eats away at Stack, and then there are those anonymous midnight phone calls. What was a melancholy character study morphs into something more sinister. "What if Nicola is not what she seems to be?" Stack frets. From here on, the affair is a balancing act of lust and mistrust.
This is a quiet novel which progresses at a pace as gentle as a wide brook but with the attached depth of still waters. The narrowing of Stack's existence is handled with both structural clarity and psychological truth, while a potentially annoying narrator who becomes a slave to self-destructive patterns never loses the reader's sympathy. It is also a book about the consolations of nature. Stack finds palliative care in "the great canopies of elm and beech, the ancient gnarled trunks of oak and hawthorn, the generosity of walnut-tree and chestnut". His solitary walks through the Gloucestershire woodland prove an effective motif for a tale of a man searching for a new path.
Alfred Hickling, “It’s Just the Beating of My Heart”, in The Guardian, 29th May 2010John Stack is a disaffected art dealer who likes a drink. “Drinking is to me what golf is to a golfing pro or skydiving is to a skydiving champion. I want to master it, to hone my sipping, my savouring skills.” Needless to say, he doesn’t think he has a problem; but when his wife and daughter abandon their Cotswold cottage one Christmas, Stack is left to hone his sipping skills and extend his talent for ham-fisted metaphors: “My thoughts go round like a game of swing ball. I send them out into the ether and they come back at me with a lateral wallop but go nowhere.”
Redemption arrives in the form of Nicola, an attractive widow who sympathises with his situation “echolalically” (which doesn’t appear in my Oxford Compact, so I can’t help you there, unless he means echoically, which doesn’t make sense.)
But given the choice between a single woman and a single malt, Stacks opts for the latter. Aronowitz saves his revelatory denouement for the final page, though the chances are that you’ll have given up long before then.
William Rycroft, www.justwilliamsluck.blogspot.com
You may have seen that I made a pledge to try and read and review more fiction from smaller and independent publishers this year (publishers take note, I am ripe for exploitation) and when I was contacted by Flambard Press about the latest novel from their stable I thought I'd jump in with both feet. The novel itself presents a problem for the reviewer, there is an aspect to the book which if mentioned might act like a spoiler, so I shall present this post in two sections: the first is nice and safe, the second could fundamentally alter your reading experience and so may be best read by those who have already read the book or those who think they never will. Certainly read the first and if you want to you can move onto the second.
Part OneAronowitz is the author of a previous novel, Fiver Amber Beads, which was commended for using 'the language of art' as a fresh way to look at the Holocaust. Working in the art world himself his central character here is again a member of that same scene. John Stack is a gallery owner and art dealer who made a name for himself a few years ago when discovering young talent but who is trading on past successes now. In fact his life is on a pretty steep decline. His wife has left him, his gallery is dangerously close to closure with bank loans remaining unpaid whilst business slows down and he's drinking far too much, although he has his own view about what the significance of that.
I am not an alcoholic. I have days off drinking and can control my intake. It is just that I really like it. It is just that I do not want to stop the drinking surge that I began when they left me. It is just that I am often frightened that I want to die.
Stack lives away from the hustle of the London scene in the Gloucestershire countryside where he enjoys rural retreat. Aronowitz is a poet too and so knows how to use the right language to create a picture for the reader of his native Gloucestershire. There are moments of beauty but what he really aims to show, amongst the teeming life of the valley and forests, is the deep loneliness of Stack.
There is one set of footprints in the snow behind me; there will be one pint glass at the pub table at lunchtime; there was one bowl and one spoon in the kitchen sink this morning. I am bloody fed up of speaking in monologue.
That solitude is broken only by the occasional visits of his twelve year-old-daughter Bryony (the choreographed handover from his wife in London, allowing the estranged couple to remain estranged, is a nicely realised touch) until that is he encounters a neighbour, Nicola, who holds the promise of conversation, companionship; all the things that are missing from his life as it stands. Alcohol remains a stumbling block, perhaps fuelling his suspicions about the circumstances of Nicola's previous husband's death. I mentioned that Stack is on a downward trajectory as the book begins and this continues, with alcohol and suspicion contributing to a fragile mental state that slowly collapses. That all sounds rather depressing but the strange thing about it is that it's only really in the opening pages that it feels that way. It may not be the most energetic place to start a book from but Aronowitz skilfully charts Stack's descent and arouses sympathy with Bryony's attempts to keep her father on the straight and narrow.
Part TwoThis isn't a spoiler in the traditional sense, I'm not going to give away a detail of the plot so much as a fundamental part of the book's structure.In the email from Flambard was a link to an article by Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent in which he discussed this novel, and the latest from Tim Pears, both books united in their use of a twist. There, I've said it. The book has a twist. And that's all you need to know for it to radically alter your reading experience. You don't even need to know what the twist is. If you know there is one then you cannot help but guess at it, and if you're anything like me then you're going to work it out before the writer gets to do his big reveal (almost on the very last page here) and therefore be left a little underwhelmed by it. This is also because, as Sutcliffe notes in his article, 'you suspect Aronowitz's novel is built around its twist and wouldn't exist otherwise'. As far as the book's power goes, it's all about the twist really, and if you've guessed it early, or just aren't into twists generally, then the book may disappoint. However, I think there's enough to admire in the book before worrying about whether the twist performs the coup the writer may be aiming for. As a study of loss, loneliness and hope it has plenty to say, in prose that is shot through with the sparkle and description one would hope to find from a poet.
Tom Sutcliffe, “The bitter ending”, in The Independent, 12th March 2010In what circumstances is it acceptable for a work of art to cheat us? Or, to put it another way, why is that we sometimes complain that a novel or a film has taken us for a ride ("colloq. to tease, to mislead deliberately, to hoax, to cheat") while at other times we celebrate the fact that we have been taken for a ride ("device on which one rides at an amusement park or fair"). I ask the question in the light of a localised cluster of twist endings – two of them in recently published novels and one at the conclusion of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. I might as well confess right away that I don't know what the twist is in the case of the Scorsese film, only that there is one and that it has provoked yelps of complaint from those who have seen the film. Comparisons have been drawn with The Sixth Sense – and they haven't always been flattering to Scorsese.
These days it would be easy enough to find out what the twist is; just Google and it's there, helpfully flagged with a spoiler warning. But since I haven't yet seen Shutter Island I can't quite bear to do it to myself. I know, logically, that any film that isn't worth seeing twice isn't worth seeing once, so it really shouldn't matter. And I know that the high-minded cineaste shouldn't invest so much in big-dipper narrative jolts. But I want to guess for myself. And that, I suppose, is part of the answer to the question. We don't mind when everything about a project warns us in advance that there may be trapdoors beneath our feet. Shutter Island is a knowing exercise in gothic film – a genre in which the fireplace that suddenly swivels to reveal an unsuspected corridor isn't a breach of narrative ethics but an indispensable pleasure.
It's a little different when what you're consuming conceals its own purposes more carefully. I have to proceed cautiously, because I have no wish to throw up spoilers, but I think it's safe to say that neither Tim Pears's novel Landed nor Richard Aronowitz's book It's Just the Beating of My Heart end in a place that one in ten thousand of their readers will have predicted.
Indeed, they exploit to a large degree our complacent assumptions about what can happen in a conventional literary novel – or how psychology operates. They exploit our assumption that if it isn't mentioned it isn't important, which means that a novelist doesn't always have to actively conceal things. In both cases I felt a stab of irritation on discovering what the novelist had known for some time but I hadn't.
Curiously, it persists with the Aronowitz novel in a way that it hasn't with the Tim Pears, and it isn't very easy to say why. Neither of them shamelessly cheats – in the sense of breaking an internal logic or creating false witnesses. And the Tim Pears novel can even reasonably claim that it explicitly tells the reader what is going on. But, whereas one feels that Aronowitz's book has pulled off a clever piece of sleight of hand, and is broadly exhausted by that discovery, the Pears unsettles in quite a different way.
Perhaps it's just that I guessed too early in the Aronowitz – and saw the smoke and mirrors before the conjuror reached his "reveal". Perhaps its just that I still can't decide what to make of Pears's ending and have suspended a verdict in the interim.
But I think it may be this: you suspect Aronowitz's novel is built around its twist and wouldn't exist otherwise. With Pears's book you get the oddest sense that the novelist may have been as surprised by his readers by what finally happened. One is a trick (and a good one). The other is a mystery, which is something else altogether.
Tom Cunliffe, www.acommonreader.orgRichard Aronowitz achieved critical success with his previous, Holocaust-themed novel, Five Amber Beads and he moves in a different direction with Its Just the Beating of my Heart. I am pleased to say that his new book is a very fine novel indeed, with many layers of interest and a complex plot, which you won’t really understand until the end. At that point you will want to re-read the whole book to see the way in which the author introduces levels of dissonance into the story which slowly unsettle the reader and arouse suspicions about the reliability of this first-person narrator.
We read about failing art-dealer John Stack, whose wife left him on Christmas Day, taking their daughter with her. Life has now become that of the lonely bachelor, transformed into “single-Dad” every other weekend when daughter Bryony comes to stay for the weekend, at his lonely cottage in rural Gloucestershire.
John works in London four days a week at the gallery he owns in St James. On the fifth day he “works from home”, which as we all know is a euphemism for prevarication and long boozy lunchtimes. His gallery, once at the cutting edge, is now not so fashionable. Some of the young artists John supported have not quite made the grade and are now fortyish and looking for one last chance at an exhibition (which John finds it hard to refuse).
Bryony’s visits are the highlight of John’s life. He picks her up from the station on Fridays and delivers her back on Monday mornings. He catches glimpses of his wife, but somehow these are never more than fleeting, for she has decided to keep out of his life, and in any case, “we trust each other beyond words with our daughter but cannot trust each other with ourselves”. Bryony is still at the age when she is happy to go for long country walks with her father and spend low-key weekends, but all the signs are there that adolescence will soon put a stop to these intimate parent/child weekends deep in the countryside.
Poor John still seems besotted with his wife, and takes refuge in copious amounts of red wine which help him find the emotional oblivion he seeks. Her sudden departure on Christmas Day seems to have traumatised him, but can it have been as unexpected as he suggests? We find ourselves drawn into a set of mysteries, asking ourselves if John knows more about the anonymous phone-calls which end abruptly before they have really begun.
Before long, John meets a neighbour, a beautiful widow called Nicola, at a gallery in nearby Stroud. He is instantly attracted to her and finds himself taking a walk up to her house to see if he can catch another glimpse of her. They soon get together for tentative dinner-dates, and John finds out that she nursed her husband while he was dying of a tumour. Their relationship begins to develop over intimate dinners, although Nicola’s tendency to fall asleep on the way home takes some getting used to – but then John does seem to always order a second or even third bottle of wine.
John and Nicola are soon the main thing in each other’s lives, but there is a strange reticence on John’s part to be open about his past. He never mentions Bryony and pretends to be visiting friends when her visits come round. I began to wonder if John Stack is in fact an unreliable narrator. And are his suspicions about “to good to be true” Nicola justified or verging on the paranoiac? At this point, I need to stop describing this novel, for two reasons:
1. its rather good and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
2. The complexity of the plot and story takes off at quite a pace and it would be far better to read the book than my summarising.
Richard Aronwitz produces some fine writing. He has a great feel for the Gloucestershire countryside and John’s rambles through woodland provide an evocative picture of the steep hills of the Cotswold escarpment:
From the top of the escarpment we descend towards the bottom of the valley down a steep path; the trees thin out here, giving way to meadowland again and the clear sounds of a stream. We sit and rest on the trunk of a fallen tree, a great elm that stood, dead upright, for two decades following the the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic in the seventies, only to be felled by the storms that swept this part of the country in the late eighties.
Aronwitz writes well throughout, and the integration of story with location makes the book somehow seem very English. This is a quality book, and although there is little crime in the novel, the clever plot development reminded me rather of writers like Ruth Rendell or Frances Fyfield.
I love the design of the book. In an interesting author interview here, Richard Aronowitz said about the cover, I proposed the idea of a sinuous line, which in my imagination represented the path through the woods between John Stack’s and Nicola Fenshawe’s houses. This sinuous line was transformed into police incident tape fluttering in the branches of a tree for the finished book-cover. My editor at Flambard worked closely with the talented artist, Andrew Foley, and fed back my comments and thoughts to him as the design took shape.
Having just designed a book cover myself (see my previous post) I can see that I was far more focused on the technical problems rather than the art and I would like to try again. In fact, Flambard Press have done a good job with the whole production for the book is printed on good quality paper with typesetting which makes it a pleasure to hold and read (what a loss for readers of e-books).
So, its congratulations all round, to Richard Aronowitz and also to Flambard Press. I hope this book sees some commercial success, and the writing is so visual I can just see it as a television drama, perhaps spread over two or three episodes.