Intriguing, both the plot and the Author’s voice.
The Weighing of the Heart by Paul Tudor Owen released in March in the lIterary Fiction genre.
Following a sudden break-up, Englishman in New York Nick Braeburn takes a room with the elderly Peacock sisters in their lavish Upper East Side apartment, and finds himself increasingly drawn to the priceless piece of Egyptian art on their study wall – and to Lydia, the beautiful Portuguese artist who lives across the roof garden.
But as Nick draws Lydia into a crime he hopes will bring them together, they both begin to unravel, and each find that the other is not quite who they seem.
Paul Tudor Owen’s intriguing debut novel brilliantly evokes the New York of Paul Auster and Joseph O’Neill.
Hector called her up a few days later and asked her if he could take her to the top of the Empire State Building. I know you’ll think it was cliché, she told me. It was cliché. But because it was so cliché she’d never actually been up there before. And it was thrilling to see how it all fitted together: the streets and the grid, the rivers and the park. The enormous country was spread out behind her and New York was leading it like the prow of a ship. Her lips were chapped and sticky in the cold air; the wind caught her hair as she leant her head through the barriers. Down there, in the X of Broadway and Fifth, the cabs were roaring off their marks when the lights turned green and switching lanes with terrifying abandon. Hector was wearing a baseball cap low over his face and watching her as much as he was watching the streets. The decaying warehouses of Queens and Brooklyn. The Chrysler Building delicate and gleaming like a champagne flute. The ragged silhouette of the buildings in front of the park, windows sparkling, plate glass reflecting the wintry blue sky, the sheets of offices hanging high above the rushing streets. The fire escapes clinging on to whole blocks for dear life. The empty space where the towers of the World Trade Center should have been. It was still not long since they had come down, and she felt suddenly that they were both remembering them then, those huge grey slabs peeking over the rooves and water towers, as if the roads had suddenly taken a ninety-degree turn and decided to flow straight up. “You know my mother still won’t fly,” said Hector.
“No, like— I had to get a plane to Philly on September – nineteenth, I think it was, and I mean I’m not a panicky person – 2001, this is – but even I, I just froze up,” he said. “I couldn’t do it.”
“No way,” she said.
“For days you didn’t see a plane in the sky,” recalled Hector. She remembered it herself. It had felt as though America had come to a standstill. Like it was frozen to the spot in shock.
She tracked the progress of a car down Fifth, looking deep into the wells of the city streets. It was a small city, in size. But it packed so much in. Her gaze travelled out into the bay, to the Statue of Liberty. “I had an idea for a joke,” she told him. “But I couldn’t think of a punchline.”
“How does it start?” asked Hector.
“It starts: Statue of Liberty walks into a bar.”
“Hmmm,” said Hector. He gazed out over the rooftops, thinking. “OK, no, wait—” he said. “Something about it’s green… green around the gills…?”
“It’s hard, isn’t it?”
“It seems like it would be so easy… Something about the torch…?”
“Maybe he thinks she’s trying to bring her own drink in…”
“Open container… Yeah… I don’t know, I don’t know. Hold on, I’ll think.”
She suggested the restaurant, a place over in Dumbo tiled like an old public swimming pool, dark and monochrome, mirrors and round tables. It was cramped; she and Hector were knee-to-knee, and whenever she pulled back her hand to cut her pork chops she almost bashed another diner in the back. But the other diner was oblivious. “What the fuck do they care?” he was saying to his companion. “Over in Sicily?”
She watched Hector eating, and he saw her watching. “I like those lines you get, by your eyes, when you’re concentrating,” she said. He leant over and kissed her on the cheek, and she moved away slightly, not quite ready to accept, not yet, and smiled and said: “I hope you’re thinking about the Statue of Liberty.”
“I tell you what I’m thinking. I’m thinking: if I ask for another side is she gonna think: ‘This is the greediest man on planet earth and I’m never gonna go out with him again for as long as I live,’” said Hector. She laughed. They waited in the doorway of the restaurant for a long time for a cab, and it was cold. “Now I know why they call it Dumbo,” said Hector genially; “it’s because you’d have to be a fucking idiot to live here.” They both laughed. They couldn’t hear themselves over the noise of the trains thundering across the bridge above them.
Paul Tudor Owen was born in Manchester in 1978, and was educated at the University of Sheffield, the University of Pittsburgh, and the London School of Economics.
He began his career as a local newspaper reporter in north-west London, and currently works at the Guardian, where he spent three years as deputy head of US news at the paper’s New York office.
His debut novel, The Weighing of the Heart, was shortlisted for the People’s Book Prize 2019 and longlisted for Not the Booker Prize 2019.
Why I chose New York
by Paul Tudor Owen
Like many people, I fell for New York before I’d ever set foot there.
Growing up 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in Manchester, for me New York was the city of impossible possibility described in The Great Gatsby, of underage drinking and comically hard-boiled teenage slang of The Catcher in the Rye, the place packed full of artists and writers and musicians in James Baldwin’s Another Country. It was the grimy, crime-plagued and thrilling grid of traffic depicted in Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, horns honking, neon swimming in the night.
It was the “voices leaking from a sad cafe” in Simon and Garfunkel’s Bleecker Street, and “music on Clinton Street all through the evening” in Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat. It was the home of Public Enemy and Edward Hopper. “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Every artist, musician, filmmaker or writer I loved from America – and many from much further afield – seemed to have either cut their teeth there or depicted it in their work. David Bowie and John Lennon lived there. It inspired PJ Harvey’s best album. Dylan Thomas died there. Jack Kerouac set off from there in On the Road.
But to me as a teenager, New York was as remote and out of reach as the moon. It was almost a fictional place – a set for some of the greatest works of art and literature of the 20th Century, many of which I was studying at the University of Sheffield.
The third year of my American Studies degree was spent abroad, at the University of Pittsburgh, and in January 2000 I visited New York for the first time.
Even the journey there gave me a sense of moving into a fictional world – my friends Tony and Heidi and I boarded the Greyhound in Pittsburgh just as Paul Simon’s characters do at the start of America. Heidi tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up early the next morning as the coach thundered along the overpass somewhere near Newark and the skyline of Manhattan came into view. I remember the Twin Towers, and the crush of buildings below, beside and around them compressed between the rivers. It seemed simultaneously instantly familiar and strangely unreal.
We stepped off the bus at the unlovely Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown. It was cold and grey and the streets were filthy. But we were walking the same sidewalks as the characters in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and Don DeLillo’s Underworld; we were stepping straight into a song by Blondie or a scene from a Woody Allen film.
Not everyone in the streets around us was going to become the next Don DeLillo or Debbie Harry – of course not. But it felt to me like if the next Don DeLillo or Debbie Harry existed, they were probably here somewhere, toiling away in obscurity. I wanted to be part of it.
Over the next few years, after returning to the UK, I would try to visit New York as often as I could, and that feeling never wore off. The skyscrapers that are New York’s most potent emblem symbolised the city’s sense of infinite possibility for me – the layers of lives stacked one on top of another; the lateral thinking of just deciding to build straight up; the yearning I felt seeing the skyline from the airport or the rivers or the bridges. I hoovered up books and articles about the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Flatiron and the Twin Towers – especially after the horrifying destruction of the latter had made New York the focal point of a terrible geopolitical realignment in 2001.
Eventually, four years ago, just as I was beginning to come to terms with the fact that I would never live there, my girlfriend and I both managed to get jobs there, and in March that year I arrived at JFK airport with three enormous suitcases, and within a week or so had found an apartment on St Marks Place – where Jeff Buckley recorded Live at Sin-é, where William S Borroughs, Leon Trotsky and WH Auden all once lived (not together), where Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground ran their legendary night Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis played at the Five Spot jazz club.
By that time, I had finished the first draft of my novel The Weighing of the Heart, my attempt to set down some of what I felt about New York in writing as I told the story of Nick, a young artist who steals a priceless painting from the wall of his landlords’ home on the Upper East Side. Nick moved to New York long before I did – how he feels about the city is how I imagined I would feel if I ever managed to live there. Life ended up imitating art.
But some things I got wrong. I discovered, embarrassingly behind time, that the city’s cultural centre of gravity had clearly moved from Manhattan across the river to Brooklyn – and had to rewrite scenes and references in the book as I redrafted the manuscript over the next three years. I found that the dome of the Chrysler Building – where I’d claimed there was a restaurant in the book – was actually the unlikely home to a number of dental surgeries, one of which I enthusiastically signed up to as soon as I could, getting six fillings for my trouble along with a spectacular panoramic view as I sat in the chair.
In the book, Nick, British like me, finds himself gradually beginning to feel like an American, but I never did – although I can see some of my friends are on their way along that path. And I found that being forced to reinvent yourself, something Nick embraces unreservedly from page one of The Weighing of the Heart, has downsides as well as upsides.
On the other hand there were one or two moments in the book that I’d invented from whole cloth that ended up playing out in real life – for example the startling sight of a goods train barrelling through our local subway station late one night.
And when Nick describes how “out past the flat roof almost all the skyscrapers had disappeared into mist, just the odd coloured light blinking groggily here and there”, and “feels exultantly what the New Yorkers of a hundred years ago must have felt, two hundred, three hundred, that this island and this city was theirs to create from scratch,” that was how I felt, looking out at “the ragged buildings in front of the park, windows sparkling, plate glass reflecting the last fragments of the sunset, the sheets of offices hanging high above the rushing streets … The enormous country was spread out behind us and New York was leading it like the prow of a ship.”
And there was an echo of my own first sight of New York, arriving on the Greyhound with Tony and Heidi in 2000, in the chapter when Nick describes his plane touching down for the first time at JFK: “the vast wall of skyscrapers like a gateway in the harbour, the Twin Towers its two gigantic gateposts.” It had become my second home.
Paul Tudor Owen: https://paul-tudor-owen.tumblr.com/
- 1 of 3 Signed Copies (International)
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