The Swan Thieves

Elizabeth Kostova
Little, Brown; £12.99

KOSTOVA’S previous novel, The Historian, is famous for knocking Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code off the best-seller lists.

Its successor, The Swan Thieves, also has a mystery at its core involving the art world, but it is far from a fast-paced thriller, and there are no corpses. Instead, the leisurely pace of the narrative is a large part of its charm.

The main narrator is Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist in his early 50s who lives a carefully ordered life, attending to his patients, keeping himself in shape and spending his spare time painting, a hobby that he loves. When the renowned artist Robert Oliver attacks a painting in Washington DC’s National Gallery, Leda by Gilbert Thomas, a colleague refers him to Marlow, assuming that one artist will understand another.

Robert Oliver repeatedly paints a beautiful dark-haired woman in late 19th-century dress, but will not talk about her. Oliver is a charismatic figure – big, dark-haired and handsome – and a brilliant artist. His silence intrigues Marlow, and curiosity compels him to seek out Oliver’s ex-wife, and then his ex-girlfriend, who each take over the narration in turn. Parallel sections take place in the previous century and follow the fate of a little-known Impressionist artist, Béatrice de Clerval, whose husband’s uncle, Olivier Vignot, a distinguished painter, begins tutoring her in 1879 with sensational results.

There is much pleasure to be had in the richly detailed unfolding of the contemporary characters’ stories. Their lives are haunted, it seems, by the shorter 19th-century drama. The tension increases as Marlow and Bertison follow the trail of Béatrice de Clerval and discover the shocking truth. The historical story is wonderfully plausible, while the problems and compromises facing contemporary artists like Robert Oliver and Mary Bertison is excellently researched. This is intelligent, high-grade popular fiction: escapist, certainly, but with an authentic ring of truth about it.


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