THE RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX by Alexandre  Montagu


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A man at the height of a law career recalls his youth in his Iranian homeland in this novel.

New York City–based attorney Montagu (Intellectual Property, 2012), who’s also a visiting faculty member of Princeton University’s comparative literature department, crafts an immersive tale of identity, sexuality, and self-discovery featuring his alluring protagonist, Eric Richardson. The three-part story—which refers to the ancient riddle of the Sphinx regarding the three eras of man (infancy, adulthood, and old age)—employs a smooth, lyrical prose style that ably balances history and beguiling fiction. It begins with Eric as a youth growing up in Tehran in the 1970s. Then named “Keyvan,” he was a child of divorced parents who enjoyed a comfortable life as the area’s oil and real estate markets boomed. The narrative fills in the background of Keyvan’s family and of his own coming-of-age, which is “punctuated by personal, rather than political dramas,” the narrator notes, even as civil unrest increases in the streets. Eventually, the shah goes into exile as the Iranian Revolution gains momentum. Montagu’s depiction of Keyvan’s departure from Iran in 1978 is nail-bitingly suspenseful as he clandestinely travels with his mother across borderlands with heavily guarded checkpoints. The second section follows Keyvan, now using the name “Eric,” through the 1980s, his upbringing in France, and his arrival at Princeton University. There, he receives an Ivy League education while navigating a new way of life on campus. As the social aspects of school life, and Eric’s increasing self-awareness about being bisexual, come into play, Montagu writes eloquently and tastefully of several intense trysts that Eric has with fellow student Mark, whom he’s tutoring in French. Readers will be drawn in as the protagonist struggles with his sexuality, falls in love with a man whose feelings differ from his, and tries to find meaning and direction after a sudden, catastrophic revelation.

The concluding section starts with Eric having graduated from law school. He’s now gainfully employed at a leading New York City law firm; he’s also married to a woman and is a father to two daughters. Later, it’s revealed that he hadn’t told his wife that he was bisexual. Interestingly, the reliability of Eric as a narrator is undermined by other revelations as the novel comes to an end. These unexpected elements will cause readers to question the validity and the veracity of his entire story. Overall, though, the book will appeal to readers who are looking for a unique tale of self-realization that’s introspective, reflective, and philosophical. At the same time, the book provides an authentic and vividly described history of the Middle East, of the wide-ranging reforms that the area has experienced over the years, and of Islamic culture. The combination of these elements results in a novel that’s engrossing and educational—as well as one that provides some food for thought in its final pages.

A pensive work that incorporates international history, compelling characterization, and poetic prose and will appeal to a wide variety of readers.

Pub Date: April 2nd, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-73260-210-6
Page count: 382pp
Publisher: Persepolis Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2019


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