Erudite and literary.

Estonian writer Friedenthal's novel, winner of the 2013 EU Prize for Literature and his first to be translated into English, chronicles the rainy misadventures of Laurentius Hylas, a scholar in 17th-century Estonia.

Laurentius has received a stipend from the Swedish government to study in Dorpat in the dominion of Estonia. He’d faced scandals in Leiden, Holland, where he last studied, and it was necessary for him to move on after he indulged in "careless talk" on the controversial religious issue of Pietism. The novel is primarily a study of a character afflicted by what was identified circa 1700 as melancholy. Today Laurentius might find himself treated for chronic depression or bipolar disease. Perhaps Laurentius’ melancholia is related to the glum Estonian backdrop; it's a northern clime aggravated by the chills of the Little Ice Age, as illustrated by the constant cold and rain and amplified by rampant starvation among the peasantry. What back story is offered regarding Laurentius, other than his problems at Leiden, includes hints he might have been banished by his parents after he accused several people of witchcraft. Laurentius arrives in Estonia with a rose-ringed parakeet named Clodia, his companion of 10 years, its presence "soothing his melancholy" and keeping "his humours balanced," but the bird dies almost immediately, unhinging Laurentius further. In a narrative spanning only a few days, Laurentius accomplishes little other than his dance of autumn melancholy, aggravated by his inability to eat, his sensing of the constant presence of a foul odor, and an ill-conceived bloodletting. Add multiple references to philosophical esoterica related to Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Descartes, and there arrives a dense, slow-moving, singularly focused narrative illustrating that objective medical science, now as then sometimes constrained by religious prejudices, has outgrown its own superstitions and philosophical inconsistencies while still being plagued by a religious mindset.

Erudite and literary.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-78227-174-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Pushkin Press

Review Posted Online: June 19, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2017


The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992



The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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