24 December 2009

Review: The Keep by Jennifer Egan

The story begins with Danny's arrival at The Keep, an ancient European castle that has come into the possession of his cousin. Though Danny thrives on a busy social scene, he has left New York for the isolated confines of the Keep because he has angered too many people at home. Howie, the cousin, has been very successful in life and has bought the castle with the goal of creating a special sort of resort where people can escape from the modern and allow their sense of adventure and imagination free rein.

The story of Danny, Howie and the Keep alternates with that of its author or narrator, an inmate in a state penitentiary for unspecified crimes. He's taking part in a writing program, where he is creating or remembering the story of the Keep. With this story, he hopes to impress the leader of the writing group, a woman named Holly, but in prison, even writing a story can attract the animosity of a man's fellow inmates.

There's an interesting tension between the two narratives. Both stories are contemporary, but the story of the Keep, while mostly realistic, incorporates so many Gothic elements--not just the Keep itself, but an ancient baroness, a journey into the catacombs, a looming tower--as to push into the realm of fantasy or parody. The prison narrative, while not outwardly Gothic, still very much involves those Gothic elements such as isolation, confinement, the weight of the past, and forbidden longings.

Despite the use of Gothic and metafictional elements, the story is fairly restrained, which sometimes gives the novel a little bit of a truncated feeling. My initial response was to feel a little disappointed by the end of the novel, as if the unique setting and structure of the novel had promised much more than it had been able to deliver. On reflection, my affection for the novel has grown. The Keep is a story about the choices the people make and how those affect their lives and connections with others. It may not indulge the fan of the Gothic novel in the full-on outrageousness one may expect from that genre, but it does use those elements skillfully.

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