Jennifer Egan,
The Keep
(Knopf, 2006)

Jennifer Egan's third novel opens with neo-punk cyber-junkie main character Danny arriving at his cousin Howie's dilapidated European castle. Howie couldn't even pin down which country the castle is in -- Austria, Germany or the Czech Republic -- "because the borders are constantly sliding around." Howie's dream is to create the ultimate spiritual retreat, a place to escape from modern conveniences and telecommunications and commune with higher powers. Lost soul Danny is not receptive to this idea; at least until he spots a young, blonde apparition in the Keep, the inaccessible tower of the castle that serves as "the last stand, the final holdout. It's what you protect, and where you run to when the walls are breached." Danny accepted plane tickets from his cousin as an escape route from his troubles with mobsters back in New York, but he rejected the physical isolation of the castle by bringing along his own bulky satellite phone.

Howie and Danny have a tumultuous past relationship, ever since Danny played a childhood prank that went terribly wrong. Danny has nagging doubts about Howie's motives for summoning him to his castle-in-transformation, and as strange events unfold, he's not sure who to trust and what is authentic. (It doesn't help that he's naturally predisposed to paranoia, of course.)

Early on, Egan tosses in another aspect to the story: it is actually a creative writing task for a hardened prisoner. Our author, Ray, only joined the writing class to escape his cell, but his fictional work takes on a life of its own, especially after he develops a connection with his fragile, recovering teacher. He empathizes his character Danny, but he makes it clear that Danny isn't a self-portrait.

The narrative about Danny and the ghosts of the Keep smoothly parallels Ray's struggles in prison, and subtle connections can be made between the plot twists in both Ray and Danny's lives. The stories converge in a natural manner (yes, Egan can make the supernatural entirely real). The Keep is one of the best books of the year, and it's nearly impossible for a reviewer to re-create the experience in a few short paragraphs. Go ahead and pick this one up to see for youself!

by Jessica Lux-Baumann
30 September 2006

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