A New York story of ancient Egypt…

The Weighing of the Heart by Paul Tudor Owen

It’s rare that I accept a direct approach by an author to review their books, but I liked the premise of this book which combined the story of an Englishman in New York with an obsession about ancient Egyptian art, so I said, “yes,” when Paul, a journalist for The Guardian, contacted me. This is his debut novel and was published earlier this year by small indie press Obliterati (love that name). It begins:

Sooner or later, everybody comes to New York, and I was no exception. For me, it was art school that brought me over, and I left behind the brash primary colours of late-90s London gladly and without remorse. Here I could reinvent myself, as others had before me, among the shining slabs of a great city that seemed to have scale where others only had size, where history was measured in minutes rather than the centuries, and where each of its ten million inhabitants began their lives anew each morning when they awoke and pulled up the blinds.

Our narrator, Nick Braeburn, is newly single and needing somewhere to live after a sudden break-up with his girlfriend of several years. When his colleague Jeff, whose sofa he’d been sleeping on, told him that his eccentric aunts were looking for a lodger, he’s not sure – but when he heard that they were only there at the huge apartment near the Guggenheim for two days a week, he began to look forward to meeting them. Marie and Rose Peacock turn out to be canny old things and give him a list of instructions about phone calls and unexpected visitors, Marie says, “As I always tell my nephew: the only people you are legally obliged to let into your home are uniformed police.”

Then they tell him about their other lodger, a young Portuguese woman called Lydia, who lives in a separate annex across the roof-garden. And off they go to their other home on Long Island. Nick is left to explore, and admire the many works of art hanging on the sisters’ walls. He also meets Lydia, and they get on really well, especially once their discover each other’s love of ancient Egyptian art – Paul paints his own pictures and Lydia sculpts ‘ba’s (the personality component of your soul). However, it is when Nick is one day invited into Rose’s study which is normally locked, for a family celebration, that an obsession begins…

An ancient Egyptian depiction of the ceremony

On the wall is a picture from the 1950s by an artist whose work now fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is his interpretation of the ancient Egyptian myth of ‘the weighing of the heart’ – in which a dead Egyptian’s heart is weighed to determine if his balance of guilt and innocence is lighter than a feather and he can be admitted to the afterlife. If the heart doesn’t pass, it’s given to the creature on the far right, the Devourer, a crocodile-based chimaera. Paul had thought that the the Peacock sisters’ Weighing of the Heart picture was a print, but Lydia tells him it’s an original:

Actually, she said, laughing, they weren’t particularly interested in Ancient Egypt at all; buying the Hazlemere had merely been one of many enviably far-sighted purchasing decisions they had made in the early 1960s.

Obviously, Nick is falling for Lydia big time. When he suggests that they replace the painting with the full-size high quality copy Nick had bought for himself and sell it to fund their own art careers, she is easily persuaded. Lydia’s ex, Hector, has connections – he could arrange the sale for them. You know it’s all going to go very wrong. So this novel which started off as a New York romance takes a rather darker turn and Nick finds himself caught up in a web of obsession. How will his own heart weigh up when judgement comes?

Owen has created a great unreliable narrator and fish out of water in Nick – who, naturally, recalls Gatsby’s Nick Carraway; initially innocent, then knowing and needing distance, except that Owen’s Nick doesn’t get away, he’s in too deep before he realises. He starts out all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, feeling lucky at landing a great pad and the attention of the girl next door, but then the deed is done and the consequences weigh heavy. Meanwhile, the aunts, always Marie and Rose, not Rose and Marie when together, are full of character. Only the younger, Marie, the business brains of the pair managing their property portfolio, is a spinster whereas Rose, an academic, had been married. Although they are different, their sentences often dovetail each other, having lived together so long – they may be sprightly still, but are in their 70s. They reminded me of various eccentric old ladies in literature, but I can’t put my finger on any particular ones to compare them to.

There’s something about New York as a city made for romance, and when I started reading this book, I was rather surprised at the initial light-hearted feel. NYC can also break you as easily as make you though, and once things started to turn darker, the novel became more as I’d anticipated. A lean novel at 240 pages, the brisk pacing kept me reading it in one sitting, bar popping to Wikipedia to find out a little more about that ancient Egyptian myth; I enjoyed the symbolism built into the text all the more. The Weighing of the Heart is one of the finalists of this year’s People’s Book Prize a literary competition aimed at finding, supporting and promoting new and undiscovered works — decided exclusively by the public, so I wish him luck at the finals next spring, as I enjoyed this book very much.

Source: Review copy – thank you! Paul Tudor Owen, The Weighing of the Heart (Obliterati, 2019) paperback original, 240 pages.

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