Book Review – The Keep by Jennifer Egan

The Keep (Anchor Books, 2006) begins with a castle, an unnamed European country, and a spectacularly annoying character.

Danny has just arrived, with a one-way plane ticket to meet a cousin he hasn’t spoken to in years, at a dilapidated castle. He doesn’t know where he is or why his cousin has brought him there. Danny is a sort of “lost boy” type – older than he’d like to admit, staking his identity on ever-shifting trends and relationships. He isn’t particularly likeable and, even as he narrates the story, he doesn’t much endear himself to the reader.

His cousin Howie, in contrast, is friendly, smart, and all together likeable. Danny explains to us why Howie has reason to hate him and seems continuously shocked that his cousin does not harbour any ill will. This tension – Danny’s fear over their history together and Howie’s seeming forgiveness – pulls us through the novel. Is Howie’s good nature genuine? Has Danny made a mistake to come to this castle or will this be the place that saves him?

Alongside this relationship is the strange character of the Baroness, who remains in the castle’s keep, spiting Howie’s dream of turning the castle into a boutique hotel. She is beautiful, hideous, sympathetic, and frightful. Danny’s interactions with her are bizarre and mysterious. It’s hard to discern between reality and Danny’s own crazed mind. This is, mostly, a really good thing in the novel.

As we become more invested in Danny’s story, it is revealed that this is a tale being told. We are introduced to the writer, who has shown himself in a few confusing ways so far. Not Egan but Ray, a prisoner in a writing course. We become equally entangled in Ray’s story and his growing relationship with his writing teacher. Why Ray is in prison remains a mystery, as does how much truth lies in the story of Danny. The answers to these questions are revealed in a very good ending.

The problem is, that ending isn’t where the novel ends. It’s where the novel should have ended and yet, for some reason, Egan keeps going. We are given a Part III, about fifty more pages, all about Ray’s writing teacher. Frankly, I cared so little about her back story that I can’t even remember her name anymore. The relationship between Ray and the writing teacher, while interesting, is not at the core of the story. The core of the story is Danny and Howie, Danny and Ray and the conclusion of those relationships is where the conclusion of the novel should have lain.

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