Tyler Keevil – Your Still Beating Heart
Published by Myriad Editions, hardback £12.99. I received a proof copy from the publisher for review purposes.
First, the official blurb: All it takes to change a life is a single moment: a random stabbing on a London bus leaves a young woman stripped of a future that should have been hers and propels her into a life skewed out of all recognition. In Prague, the city where she and her husband got engaged, a chance meeting leads to an intriguing proposition. All she needs to do is pick something up, and drive back. Just once. Only ever once.
The opening chapter of Your Still Beating Heart is many things: horrific, banal, ridiculous, incomprehensible – just like grief, in fact, which has hit a young woman as her husband, Tod, was stabbed to death on a London bus as they travelled home from the cinema. As a piece of writing, it’s lyrical, beautiful and heartbreaking, and structured so deftly that any thought of putting the book down is instantly dismissed. Hints are dropped, foreshadowing what is to come; matter-of-fact but with a cold edge that suggests things will not run smoothly.
She leaves her job and travels to Prague – she and Tod had visited; he’d proposed here. It’s a good a place as any to work through the grief and numbness and pain. Finally we find out her name, Eira. And we are introduced to our story-teller – no omniscient author narrator as I’d presumed, but a Canadian student who wants to become a writer whom Eira meets in a Czech language class she drops out of: “He is only a minor player… but his presence is important… since he is the one telling this story.” His presence is important for other reasons too, as we shall learn later. Meanwhile, this revelation prods the reader to ponder the chapters up til this point – if this is his take on what he has been told, is it entirely to be trusted? What are we not being told? Some of these questions will be answered as the novel continues, but you need to be paying attention.
Eira seeks out Mario, a local she met on her first night in the city, who had casually mentioned he could find her work if she needed, hinted but unsaid that it would be less than legitimate. Now that she goes to him needing money, he is plain about the legality, though he remains vague about the details, other than it involves crossing a border – and, we deduce, crossing a line. There is a sense of inevitability which Eira recognises with a fatalistic air. So we now move from a lyrical novel of love and loss to a classic noir: a choice made and consequences that unfold inevitably from it.
There is a meeting with Valerie. “It is just a simple favour really,” she says, casually. But renege and there will be a meeting with Pavel, and his scalpel, and with pain. Yet Eira relishes the moment – perhaps relishes feeling something other than that grief and numbness.
Just one job. Just once over the border into Ukraine to bring something back with her. Easy. But Eira doesn’t want to play rigidly by someone else’s rules, and there’s a distinctly ominous feeling to the prose as she makes her way across the border and to the rendezvous point.
The exchange is made. But the ominous sensation Eira and the reader alike have felt does not dissipate – quite the reverse. And then she makes a decision, and the story pivots again: We’re not surviving the fallout and grief after a senseless murder, and we’re not exactly in noir territory either. We’re now in a terrifying chase thriller with the highest of stakes, and the title – which til now seemed the perfect way to describe someone coming out of grief – takes on a second, more terrifying meaning too. I won’t say more, other than to recommend if possible that you read this second part in one sitting, to get the full effect of the pace and urgency.
It’s a cliche and frankly insulting to say a novel transcends the crime fiction genre, because there are some outstanding crime books in terms of character, style and language. Your Still Beating Heart can hold its head high, thanks to its intriguing structure and changing tone, its page-turning plot and above all in its beautiful language that taps directly into their emotions. Keevil has created something very special with this novel, and I don’t hesitate to recommend it.
Tyler Keevil is the author of three novels, including The Drive (also published by Myriad) and No Good Brother (Borough Press). He has won awards including the Wales Book of the Year People’s Prize and the Writers’ Trust of Canada /McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. He is director of the MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. He grew up in Vancouver but moved to Wales in his twenties, and now lives in Abergavenny.
Follow the author on Twitter @TylerKeevil