A research project takes a college freshman into lands of the mind and soul he never knew existed—or wants to remember.
Written in flashback by its haunted protagonist, this first outing trades in clichés but makes them somehow sing together in beautiful unison. There’s the setting of Aberdeen College, your prototypical Northeastern enclave of moneyed academia, thick with Gothic architecture and privilege, where “the tang of New England countryside has seeped into your skin . . . [where] it will remain, tendrils of ivy forever enshrouding your limbs.” There’s the narrator, Eric Dunne, 16 and on an academic scholarship that’s rescued him from his foster family and New Jersey, who is introduced to the joys of full-time study, the mystery of death and the pinch of unrequited love. Then there’s the story, as young Eric is roped into a research project run by Dr. Cade, one of the bright lights of Aberdeen and working on a history of the Middle Ages, which a coterie of students mostly writes for him. The other students, Art, Howie and Dan, are a high-functioning band of misfit geniuses ensconced in Dr. Cade’s remote old house, getting stinking drunk when they aren’t arguing over esoteric details of philosophy or decoding dusty history texts for the project. Eric knows from the get-go that all isn’t as it seems at Aberdeen, of course, what with the librarian he’s been assigned to appearing to be 150 years old (and insane to boot), and Dr. Cade’s other assistants being engaged in mysterious alchemical research. Add to all this the fact that Eric’s out of his skull in love with Art’s smashingly gorgeous and fiercely intelligent girlfriend and you’ve got the makings for Nathan’s dark concoction. Plenty here is just writerly show-off—mood-setting and plumbing the depths of Eric’s loneliness-ravaged, ultra-intelligent soul—but sometimes that’s more than enough for any one novel.
A malevolently thrilling coming-of-ager wrapped in a philosophical detective tale.