PRINCE by Ib Michael


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This beguiling and mysterious tale, the first of its veteran Danish author’s novels to reach English translation, is a richly imagined, if structurally suspect, fusion of romance, bildungsroman, and ghost story. The character who initially seems to be its protagonist, 12-year-old Malte, is a “charity case” (the son of a prostitute and an unknown father whose identity he dreamily fabricates) who’s spending the summer of 1912 at a seaside boardinghouse (Sea View) in a Danish fishing village. Malte’s adventurous wanderings around this summer paradise are climaxed by his discovery of a coffin washed ashore and containing the body of a sailor. As the summer proceeds, Malte learns and also intuits much more about the adult world and the realities of death and change—from his several mentors (including a companionable physician and an indulgent lighthouse- keeper), and through his observations of the romance between the Sea View’s housemaid Ota and a handsome boarder who may or may not be “Monsieur Charles,” or the lover who promises to make her an honest woman. Further mysteries inhere in the aftermath of a reclusive old woman’s death, and the provision in her will that a requiem be performed for that supposedly unknown sailor and especially in the “person” of the novel’s narrator: an otherworldly voice that is, simultaneously, that of Malte’s guardian angel, his experienced and heroic alter ego, and the “spirit” of the unidentified sailor. The latter’s complex history, and true relation to the village whence his body has returned, are exhaustively explained in the crowded, though suspenseful and gratifying, concluding pages. It’s doubtless a mistake to give so much space to the sailor’s story—in effect keeping the hitherto major characters out of view for a distractingly long time. Nevertheless, the mystery’s solution is ingenious, and the story’s lyrical ending provides one of its finest moment Admirers of Peter H—eg’s novels and the gothic tales of Isak Dinesen won—t want to miss it—and will be eager for (surely forthcoming?) future translations of Ib Michael’s fiction.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-374-23723-9
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1999


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