Book Review: The Keep by Jennifer Egan

86655Title: The Keep
Author: Jennifer Egan
Genre: Literary Fiction
Age Group: Adult
Rating: 3, 5 stars
Purchase: Goodreads, Amazon

Award-winning author Jennifer Egan brilliantly conjures a world from which escape is impossible and where the keep-–the tower, the last stand-–is both everything worth protecting and the very thing that must be surrendered in order to survive.

Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe. 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 that seamlessly brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation.

When I bought this, it was marketed as a ghost story. It’s not. It’s literary fiction.

I struggled to find a suitable rating for The Keep, doubting between giving it 3 or 4 stars. The book itself has a lot of good points, namely the plot, which is build up of two different stories that connect halfway through the book. I actually like this ‘story in a story’ concept, which reminds me of Inception. But then there are also so many bad things about this book that I have trouble summing all of them up. The story felt unfinished. The climax isn’t all that overwhelming, the last chapter is dull and the ending is abrupt, and seems like an overthought, almost like an entire new story.

I think the problem with this book is the author tried to write literary fiction. I say tried, because in my opinion it doesn’t quite succeed. In The Keep, we meet Danny, a thirty-something man who spend the last years of his life working the scene in New York. He’s never had to grow up, and in fact he’s quite scared of growing up. He’s also terrified of losing touch with the outside world, so when he goes to visit his cousin in a remote castle, he brings an antenna. Which then drops into the pool and is forever lost. I actually liked Danny. He has a past that haunts him. He’s not overly successful at life. He struggles with everything from his relationship with his parents to his relationship with a woman he’s falling for. And then he gets to this supposedly haunted castle where there’s a tower, and inside is the old baroness or duchess. That’s when things get wonky. Storylines are explored but never fully explain. Who is the ancient baroness? Is she real, is what happened between her and Danny real, or is it a metaphor? I like metaphores as much as the next person, but they have to make sense. This one certainly didn’t make sense to me. And then there’s the castle’s pool. Supposedly twins drowned there numerous years ago. Since this is a ghost story, I half expected the twins to make a ghostly appearance, but they only do so briefly, and are quickly dismissed.

My major issue with this book is that it’s not labelled correctly. I bought it thinking I was going to read a good, old-fashioned ghost story. The ghost’s appearances are so brief and meaningless they add next to nothing to the book. Instead, it’s more like a character study. What’s going to happen to Danny? If he going to take up responsibilities or not?

And then we find out Danny isn’t real at all. He’s a character created by a prison inmate as an assignment for his writing class in prison. The inmate, Ray, has a crush on his teacher so he wants to write a great story. Meanwhile, he’s working on an escape plan with his crazy cell mate. I didn’t necessarily mind this story, but it could’ve been a bit more suspenseful. Like I said, this book focuses on characters, not plot, which makes the plot drag at times. It had a lot of potential, but ultimaly didn’t deliver.

As a literary work however, The Keep is not that bad. The characters are solid and flawed, and their histories complex and entertaining. Had there been more ghosts, or had the inmate story been more enticing, I would’ve given it a higher rating. The writing itself is so-so. I felt the author spend too much time trying to write in a literary style, time she’d better spend working on the plot.

If you’re a fan of literary fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this book. If you’re looking for a ghost story, look elsewhere.

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