Some of the best writing of Millhauser’s increasingly brilliant career (Enchanted Night , 1999, etc.) appears in this collection of three imaginative and unusual novellas.
“Revenge” is an extended monologue spoken by an unnamed middle-aged woman, recently widowed, as she shows her house to another nameless woman, its prospective buyer. Every successive room and object triggers an emotional memory of her late husband, an adulterous yet doting history professor, and progressive revelations of the narrator’s anger and unhappiness illuminate both the identity of her visitor and the ingenious “revenge” she has taken. It’s a very clever psychological horror story, which creates out of simple declarative sentences a thickening atmosphere of menace and suspense. “An Adventure of Don Juan” brings the notorious seducer, bored with easy conquests of Venetian women, to England and the lavish estate of Juan’s casual acquaintance, wealthy Augustus Hood. The estate is a private theme park, a “giant mechanism” whose parts replicate classical scenes and themes, including the entryway to Hell. And it’s a place of awakening for the great lover, whose attraction to a bewitching woman (his host’s sister) utterly indifferent to his charms teaches him a lesson or two about the farther reaches of amorous pleasure. Best of all is the title story, Millhauser’s version of the medieval romance of Tristan and Ysolt. King Mark of Cornwall’s counselor and former tutor stoically observes his cuckolded sovereign’s vacillations among outrage, relief, confusion, and sorrow as continually conflicting evidence surrounds rumors hat young Queen Ysolt and the King’s nephew and trusted knight Tristan are lovers. Both the force of their passion and the inhibitions of his own honor prevent the monarch from acting, and allow the tragedy to follow its own serpentine course. It’s an unforgettable dramatization of the many faces of love and loyalty.
Wonderful work, from one of the authentic magic-makers.