Friday, April 25, 2008

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

From National Book Award finalist Jennifer Egan, author of Look at Me (“Brilliantly unnerving . . . A haunting, sharp, splendidly articulate novel” —The New York Times), a spellbinding work of literary suspense enacted in a chilling psychological landscape—a dazzling tour de force.

Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank whose devastating consequences changed both their lives, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe, a castle steeped in blood lore and family pride. Built over a secret system of caves and tunnels, the castle and its violent history invoke and subvert all the elements of a gothic past: twins, a pool, an old baroness, a fearsome tower. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story—a story about two cousins who unite to renovate a castle—that brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation.

Egan’s relentlessly gripping page-turner plays with rich forms—ghost story, love story, gothic—and transfixing themes: the undertow of history, the fate of imagination in the cacophony of modern life, the uncanny likeness between communications technology and the supernatural. In a narrative that shifts seamlessly from an ancient European castle to a maximum security prison, Egan conjures a world from which escape is impossible and where the keep—the last stand, the final holdout, the place you run to when the walls are breached—is both everything worth protecting and the very thing that must be surrendered in order to survive.

A novel of fierce intelligence and velocity; a bravura performance from a writer of
consummate skill and style.


I first saw this book on Amazon and was drawn to the cover. It's taken me a while but I finally got around to reading it last month.

There are two threads of storyline in this book, and at first they seem completely unrelated. The first is the story of two cousins who have just been reunited after many years apart. The reason for the separation is quite horrific. Basically one of the cousins (Danny) deliberately left the other in a deep cave and left him for dead. Howard recovered to be quite wealthy, and has recently bought a castle in Eastern Europe with the intention of creating a hotel where there is no entertainment, no outside contact, only serene surroundings where the guests will be expected to rely on themselves for entertainment...their own imagination.
Danny is quite wary of Howard - not really sure if he has ever been forgiven for the childhood prank that could have been fatal. Howard has given Danny vague reasons as to why he has invited him here and after a nasty incident with the pool, Danny is convinced that maybe Howard is out to get him.

Gradually though, we get to meet Ray who is in prison and he is writing a story for his creative writing course that he is undertaking whilst incarcerated. He is attracted to the teacher, and eventually we find that the story that we have been reading about Danny and Howard is just that...a story. Or is it? The novel within a novel is certainly not a unique idea, but sometimes it doesn't work. This one did, for me at least.

At times the story was humourous - Danny's encounter with the Countess who lives in the Keep and refuses to leave - made me laugh out loud on the train, as did the episode where technology reliant Danny loses his satellite phone. At other times, an intense dissection of human relationships including betrayal, both spousal and familial, the novel is also quite creepy and atmospheric.

The only discordant note for me was the introduction of the point of view of the writing teacher towards the end of the book. I understand why she was injected into the story more at the point where she was, but it felt like an unnecessary story to tack onto the end of the other two story lines that were already completely intertwined!

Originally posted on my blog March 2007

3 comments:

SarahA said...

Marg, thanks for your review, very much in line with what I thought of the book.

I found the intertwining of the tales very effective and very skilfully done (and there are many novels where it is used in a much more heavy handed manner).

I liked the way they joined together and you were given enough clues to see this happening but left with enough room for doubt that you felt clever for "working it out".

And I couldn't agree more about the introduction of the creative writing teacher. Odd, poorly executed and surely not the best way of closing that loop.

But it didn't spoil the novel. I loved the descriptions of the castle and the characters there. It was a real page turner and its not so often you get the page turning and the humour, so that was an added bonus.

Thanks for the great review Marg.

Marg said...

I am glad that you thought the same! Thanks for commenting!

Nate Stearns said...

You know, I didn't hate the writing teacher at the end. If it had ended with the two entwined narratives there wouldn't have been any of the prison break story and though I was a bit irritated by all the loose ends, I think tying up the baronness, Ann, Howard, and the torture room would have been worse.