It's Just the Beating of My Heart, By Richard Aronowitz

An alcoholic art dealer has a dangerous affair
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In 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.

Comments