Two cousins linked by a shameful secret, a convicted murderer and a reformed meth freak are unlikely co-conspirators in this adventurous new novel by Egan (Look at Me, 2001, etc.).
Aging party boy Danny is uneasy at the castle recently purchased by his cousin Howie in a remote area of central Europe. True, a “misunderstanding” with some very tough customers made it imperative to get out of New York City, and his cousin sent him a ticket. But has Howie really forgiven Danny for abandoning him in an underground cave when they were teenagers, a trauma that led him to drugs and crime? Well, maybe, since Howie eventually became a bond trader rich enough to retire at 34 and dream of turning the castle into a unique kind of hotel. “Let people be tourists of their own imaginations,” he says, explaining that the castle will be free of all electronic distractions. Danny, who panics without his cell phone and Internet connection, is incredulous; when Howie says, “Imagination! It saved my life,” his guilty cousin is sure he’s making reference to that fateful day in the cave. No sooner are we immersed in this intriguing setup than the author pulls back to reveal that it’s the creation of Ray, who’s taking a writing course to kill time in jail. This storytelling strategy is hard to pull off, since one tale is almost always more interesting than the other, but Egan’s characterizations and plotting are so strong that we’re eager to find out where both sets of protagonists are heading even before it becomes clear that Ray is describing something that actually happened to him. As the focus shifts once again, this time to Ray’s teacher Holly, all the narrative strands come together to underscore the theme Egan movingly delineates throughout: the power of art to transform even the most twisted and hopeless lives. There are a few slow spots, and the beautiful prose doesn’t entirely disguise how wildly improbable the novel’s events are, but the characters’ emotions are so real, the author’s insights so moving, that readers will be happy to be swept away.
Intelligent, challenging and exciting.