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THE CHESS GARDEN by Brooks Hansen

THE CHESS GARDEN

or The Twilight Letters of Gustav Uyterhoeven

By Brooks Hansen

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-374-16015-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 Big subjects like history, religion, and science mingle awkwardly with Tolkien-like fantasy in Hansen's first solo fictionall about an aging doctor who finds spiritual solace in an imaginary continent inhabited by game pieces. When the story, told in letters and flashbacks, opens, the flood of 1912 is threatening the Uyterhoeven home in Dayton, Ohio. Mrs. Uyterhoeven has just died, and an old friend is moving the contents of various cabinets and drawers to safetycontents that, together with the Uyterhoevens themselves, will become the main actors here. The biographical detailsthe birth and distinguished academic career of Dutch-born Dr. Gustav Uyterhoeven; his marriage to Sonja, daughter of a barge captain; his growing discontent with rational science; the death of an only son; an encounter with a Swedenborgian minister that changes his life and brings him to Ohioare secondary to the letters he writes home from South Africa, where he's gone as a medical volunteer during the Anglo-Boer war. Beginning in late 1900, Uyterhoeven records in letters accompanied by chess pieces his adventures in the imaginary ``Antipodes''letters eagerly awaited back in Ohio, where friends gather in the Uyterhoeven chess garden to hear them read. The geography of the ``Antipodes'' resembles a series of game boards; and after many adventures in which he meets good and bad bishops, dominoes that form bridges, dice that show the way, and vandals led by sinister figures, Uyterhoeven begins to accept his son's death and life's pain. He is waiting, he says in his last letter, to tell the barge-toting queen he met earlier that ``I have seen her son and he is in heaven.'' Colorful details, idiosyncratic characters, and an intriguing search for meaning are all here but never quite connect up. Hansen (coauthor of Boone, not reviewed) echoes rather than equals or advances the achievements of Tolkien, Carroll, and Lewis.