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Review: The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

The U.S. novelist Elizabeth Kostova has a winning way with description. Here is what she writes about the obsessive artist Robert Oliver, the main figure in her second novel, The Swan Thieves: "I remembered now those gestures of hand and arm, and the curling edges of his mouth, the oddly sculpted face, the charm that was charming because there was no awareness behind it, as if he were simply renting his body and it had turned out to be a good one, although he treated it with a renter's lack of caring."

It's a revealing image, a man merely a tenant in his own body, but reading it, I wondered if it were not also an apt description of Kostova's relationship with her art. She is great at decorating this novel, but seems blithely unconcerned with some fundamental deficiencies in its structure, as though literary fiction were not yet her lifelong home.

The central mystery of The Swan Thieves is why Oliver, a successful realist painter, has attempted to slash a canvas of Leda and the Swan in Washington's National Gallery. The depressive Oliver has become dangerously obsessed - as his psychiatrist Andrew Marlow discovers by talking to his ex-wife Kate - with some unknown woman whose image he paints over and over again, often in 19th-century dress.

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Marlow tells us Oliver's story in the first person as the doctor strives to liberate his stubbornly silent patient from his evident pain, but it is interrupted by the text of old letters the artist has in his possession. These were written in France in the 1870s by an Impressionist painter named Béatrice de Clerval and her uncle by marriage.

Ever since A.S. Byatt published Possession in 1990, fiction has been full of postmodern narrators discovering old letters

And this is where things get creaky. Oliver wouldn't speak to Marlow, but lends him the letters long enough for the doctor to have them translated by a convenient French prof. She is apparently a very slow translator, lacking in natural curiosity: Béatrice's letters rapidly reveal an increasingly romantic attachment with a family member 40 years her senior, but are doled out suspensefully as though either the prof could only translate one at a time or Marlow was somehow rationing his reading. There is a sense of relief when Kostova gives up this ridiculous pretence and begins to relate Béatrice's story through a third-person narrative.

Similarly, most readers will accept that, although Kate is supposedly telling Marlow her version of her husband's breakdown - and her tale is the most chillingly readable part of the novel - she relates an intimate story in a literate first-person narrative style that no one uses in conversation.

But we are not going to let Kostova get away with that a second time. The pretence that Oliver's former lover Mary would actually write up her version for Marlow and send it to him chapter by chapter becomes ludicrous as this independent and wary woman fires off lengthy prose passages revealing details as personal as her choice of underwear.

Ever since A.S. Byatt published Possession in 1990, fiction has been full of postmodern narrators discovering old letters or poking about in archives. Having created such a figure in my first novel, I remain convinced by the genre. However, if you are going to mix the contemporary and historical, you have to follow Byatt's lead and seamlessly knit past and present texts together both through plot and through theme. Or you can do as Michael Cunningham did in The Hours and simply switch time periods and stories without explanation, letting the parallels speak for themselves.

Instead, we get half-hearted and improbable explanations from Kostova, whose first novel, The Historian, also mixed eras and voices as it investigated the real Vlad the Impaler and his fictional counterpart, Dracula. As she follows that bestseller with The Swan Thieves, I wonder if the uneven structure betrays an uncertainty about her own purpose. At first, this seems to be a novel about obsession: Oliver, the only central character who is not simply nice, is a fascinating figure. With his devotion to his own art and his otherworldly self-absorption, he seems an unlikely rescuer for the feminist memory of the forgotten Béatrice, who mysteriously abandoned painting at 29. As her story begins to bite, Oliver's peters out and the novel becomes a fictional addendum to The Obstacle Race, Germaine Greer's 1979 study of neglected women painters.

The results are highly readable; if Marlow is too bloodless to make his own burgeoning romance of much interest, Oliver's and Béatrice's tales are compelling, while Kostova provides magnificently convincing descriptions of the utterly fictional paintings the two artists have created. Certainly, The Swan Thieves is well written, but it is also ill-conceived.

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Globe and Mail arts writer Kate Taylor is the Atkinson Fellow for 2010, researching Canadian cultural sovereignty in the digital age. Her new novel, A Man in Uniform, will be published in August, and is set exclusively in 19th-century Paris.

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