This is the first post of England’s Lockdown 2 (today is the halfway point, not that I’m counting), but not the last, as I have some exciting things lined up. Not many writers can commit right now, so I’m doubly grateful to acclaimed guest author Tyler Keevil, who grew up in Vancouver and now lives in Wales, for joining me. I first discovered his writing in summer 2019 when I embarked on a Month of Canadian Fiction (if you want to transport/torment yourself with mountains and lakes, my trip report is here). I read his debut novel Fireball from 2010 and have since read story collection Burrard Inlet (2014). Canada is so intrinsic to both that I was intrigued to see what he did with new novel Your Still Beating Heart, a thriller set in Prague. As you’ll see, this post truly is that of a Writer on Location. My review of the book follows:
Prague is known as the Mother of Cities, the Golden City, the City of a Hundred Spires. These days it’s also known as a destination for stag and hen parties, but to me in the early millennium Prague was cold and lonesome, a monochrome dream. My memories are impressionistic: a winter-sting in the air; frost crystals on your breath. Bitter-chill sips of Becherovka and slivovitz. An ever-present cold. The sensation of being numb, of being encased in a cold coccoon, as I wandered the streets, both aimless and purposeful.
Like Eira, the heroine of Your Still Beating Heart, I’d flown to Prague without much luggage except a duffel bag full of books (though in her case the books belong to a husband who’s recently been killed). I’d just graduated and was travelling with the money I’d saved working as a busser at a restaurant in Vancouver, and I’d come to Prague to ‘be’ a writer.
I had no contacts there, no friends or relatives to look up. I’d booked a bedsit on the internet, unbelievably cheap for the location, in Vinohrady, within walking distance of Prague 1, the Old Town and tourist district. I paid the equivalent in koruny of about $200 Canadian per month. Eira’s room in the novel is based on it. Too small to be called a studio flat – maybe ten by twenty feet. A shower in one corner. The toilet in the hall outside. A battered cupboard with a single hotplate. A bed that resembled an army cot. Musty carpet and stale smoke. Peeling wallpaper. Cracked paint. It was exactly what I’d wanted.
After deducting rent, I had a budget of about five dollars a day to get me through the autumn and winter. On the hot plate I boiled potatoes and pasta, fried vegetables and eggs. I bought the cheapest beer and cigarettes and spent evenings sitting at my window, smoking and imitating the pictures I’d seen of Camus. It was an act, of course. I was playing at being a writer. But part of my act was writing. And in the mornings I stayed sober and focused: I would boil coffee on my hotplate and write longhand in my notebook. I had the will, but no direction, no craft, no skill. My stories grew too long and got away from me, slippery and unmanageable as eels. But it didn’t matter. Nobody was there to judge my struggles.
Even an aspiring writer couldn’t sit at the desk all day. In the afternoons, wandering became part of my routine. I’d often walk from Vinhohrady to Wenceslas Square, where Eira meets Mario, the street hustler. Then on to the Old Town, the elaborate Astronomical Clock with its mechanical figurines. And across Charles Bridge, the Vltava, the boats like the one Eira uses to escape, and over to St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle. Close to where Pavel and Valerie, the villains of the piece, live in their ominous manor house. I wandered further afield, too – on day trips – by bus and train. To Terezin, the unspeakable show-town of the Nazis, and Kutna Hora, where Eira hides out – with its bone church decorated with human remains: tibias and fibulas, spines and skulls. An eerie monument to life and death.
I existed like that for a couple of months: amid people but not with people, in a city but in isolation. To contact anybody back home I had to go to a payphone or an internet café. Being cut off, I felt my personality dissipating. Without social interaction, removed from friends and family, I began to learn how much of myself was a construct. The result wasn’t anxiety. I remember feeling quite calm but detached. Alone, but not lonely.
One day, near the Church of St. Ludmilla, I passed a Czech language school. I turned in and signed up for a month-long course. It was an expensive whim: I had to cut my budget, shorten my trip. But maybe I sensed it was necessary: we can only do without human contact for so long. Like Kai in the Snow Queen, part of me was slow-freezing, losing the capacity for warmth and emotional connection. Maybe I hoped the class would bring me out of that.
We were a small group of about a dozen students, from Japan, Bangladesh, Australia, Holland, Britain. In the old classroom with rattling pipes we huddled together, reciting nouns and verb conjugations and recorded dialogues. After, we often went out for coffee or drinks. Now that my budget was blown I was laissez faire about this, but I never had lunch with the others, grew to savour the giddy-buzz of alcohol and caffeine on an empty stomach. In the classroom and those gatherings after, my old personality re-emerged. I could still be the friendly, congenial, Canadian boy I’d been.
We all have this duality, but perhaps us writers most of all. An outer and an inner life. A persona, and a self. And writing has to originate from the self, the depths, not the surface-persona – if we want to write what matters to us. Maybe that was what my stay in Prague allowed: it let my inner self surface, for a time. Lost and alone as I was, I was me. Innocent as those first stories were, they were honest, earnest efforts. They were a start.
The stories were a learning experience, but the process – the combination of writing and wandering – also eventually led to this novel. I was creating my own map of the city, embedding it in my memories, to return to at the right time. When that time came, many years later, I found Prague was all still there: waiting for me to travel back, to wander those same streets and routes, to visit those same towns, and use that terrain to build Eira’s story.
Thanks to Tyler for this wonderful piece – I’m sure many of you will be struck by parallels with what we’re all living through now, as well as by the great insights about writing.
As my Books of the Year post is currently taking shape, I’m going to kick off with a spoiler and tell you this is one of them. Randomness fascinates me and the inciting incident for this story is an extreme case, when a young woman’s life is torn apart by the senseless murder of her husband, prompting her to return to the city where they got engaged. There’s a transcendent quality to novels which wrest tenderness and beauty from brutality and ugliness, and this one has it in abundance. And whilst this is rooted in empathy, it’s reinforced by the writing itself. There’s a cleanness to Keevil’s style that allows the reader space to hear what’s being said, what isn’t, and who’s doing the talking.
Your Still Beating Heart has the emotional heft of a character-driven literary novel despite being a palpitation-inducing page-turner, a rare combination and, as writing challenges go, an ambitious one. The story has elements I wasn’t expecting at all. The journey Eira embarks on when she gets to Prague is not just a high-stakes mission involving some very dangerous people; it’s the road back to meaning and to life from a place of profound grief and shock. If she makes it back. I found it moving, gripping and evocative of place – if you enjoyed Judith Heneghan’s Snegurochka (set in Kiev) or Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You (set in Sofia), there are shades of overlap, but this book’s heart beats to its own tune.