The death of a child commits his grieving father to a pilgrimage of scholarly investigation in this brooding 11th novel from the veteran NBA-nominated author (American Ghosts, 2005, etc.).
During one of their lakeside summers, college French language teacher Gerard Chauvin overrules his wife Peggy’s fears by granting their six-year-old Harry’s insistent wish to explore a long-abandoned old house now “occupied” only by mischief-making teenagers. Harry falls through rotted floorboards (possibly concealed to rig a trap) to his death, and Gerard finds his own painful injuries easier to bear than the overload of guilt and sorrow that subsequently burdens his every waking moment. He clings compulsively to a scrap of paper filled with “mysterious writing,” picked up seconds before Harry died, and, as he draws farther away from Peggy’s efforts to rebuild their lives, a perhaps unanswerable question nags at him: Is there meaning, a possible bulwark against debilitating grief, in the structural arrangements of languages (e.g., in the symbols on that piece of paper, soon identified as the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet)? Determined to move beyond the meaninglessness of his son’s death, Gerard leaves Peggy and, while dreamily seeking linguistic “interconnections,” meets an Asian-American woman still mourning her daughter’s suicide, and impulsively travels with her to London and a meeting with a learned philologist who can presumably answer questions both coincidentally share about language’s elusiveness and arbitrariness. This stretches credibility considerably, as do ensuing encounters with a Sephardic Jew whose wife was killed by Greek terrorists and a similarly bereaved Chechnyan woman. The novel’s ending, in the ruins of what was formerly Hadrian’s Library (to which Gerard is escorted by a guide possibly sent by the dead), is as lovely and haunting as are its stunning opening chapters. Everything in between is, alas, numbingly discursive, turgid and redundant—albeit quite beautifully written.
About 40 percent of what should have been a terrific novel.