Wedding the elegant and the barbaric

THE LATINIST by Mark Prins, Norton, 341 pages, $26.95

The Latinist is ingenious in its sinister simplicity. In the opening pages of Mark Prins’ novel, Tessa Templeton, a Ph.D. candidate in classics at Oxford, discovers that her mentor has written a recommendation letter that damns her with faint praise, torpedoing her chances of securing an academic job. His motive? Obsession. Professor Christopher Eccles wants to keep Tessa close to him, toiling as an adjunct. He’s the ultimate “Professor of Desire.”

Did you just gasp? Then, you, Dear Reader, must be familiar with the mean streets and dead ends of graduate school, particularly in disciplines like classics, where the job prospects are so infinitesimal that competition is particularly cutthroat and internationally renowned mentors like Professor Eccles are scarce. Tessa is a rising star in her small field: the noncanonical work of minor Roman poets. She’s had a paper accepted for publication and a monograph under serious consideration at Oxford University Press. So, it’s odd that some of the more humdrum graduate students in her program have landed job interviews, while Tessa has received none. Still, when Tessa receives an email from an anonymous sender that reads: “You may want to reconsider asking Christopher Eccles for a recommendation letter in the future,” she first thinks the message — and the accompanying photo of the devastating recommendation letter — must be a practical joke.

Why would Professor Eccles, or “Chris” as he’s known to Tessa, write a letter filled with buzz-kill phrases such as: “Tessa has made strides from a rocky beginning to her doctorate. ... [W]e met more regularly in her first year than is normal with the students I supervise. Sometimes she is hindered by a tendency to be argumentative.” But as the truth of Chris’ erotic fixation emerges, Tessa realizes that she’s as trapped as any noir character caught in Nightmare Alley: after all, her career rests in the hands of the very man who’s trying to destroy it, out of “love.” To free herself from the trap Eccles has set for her, Tessa must do what she does best: Use her brain power to outthink her predatory thesis adviser.

Such is the horrific premise of The Latinist, a superb literary suspense novel that calls to mind an earlier such debut, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tartt’s 1992 novel was similarly situated in the claustrophobic world of academia and saturated with references to classical mythology. Like Tartt, Prins understands the fascination of the arcane. He coaxes readers into the weeds of Tessa’s research, rendering technical details about things like “limping iambic” poetic meter not only graspable, but engrossing. The other signature aspect of academic life — particularly in graduate school (Prins attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) — that he nails is its monomaniacal lack of moderation. Professor Eccles may be unhinged, but he has a double in Tessa, who’s so zealously dedicated to her research and career that she blows off her boyfriend’s father’s funeral to attend an academic conference, thereby demonstrating that she has the right stuff to someday navigate the shark tank of the tenure process.

In addition to being an expert on obscure Roman poets, Tessa is also a formidable scholar of the Daphne and Apollo myth. That’s the ancient Greek story, set down most memorably by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, where the nymph Daphne escapes sexual violation by the god Apollo by transforming into a laurel tree. Clearly, The Latinist itself is a clever updating of the Daphne and Apollo myth — a modern tale of coercive power and last minute changes of fortune. As it goes on, this academic suspense story also changes shape, mutating into something closer to Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia after Tessa flees Oxford and attaches herself to an archaeological dig at Isola Sacra near Rome. There, working largely in solitude in an eerie necropolis, Tessa makes a spectacular discovery that just might reverse the power dynamics between her and her grasping mentor.

Prins’ evocative writing style makes The Latinist more than just a diverting contrivance. Here, for instance, is a mythologically inflected description of a visit Chris pays to his mother, who’s just entered a nursing home. She’s been diagnosed with dementia, another kind of metamorphosis:

“The elevator dinged at the first floor and at the third he stepped out, following room numbers through a labyrinth of hallways. He thought of Theseus in the labyrinth trailing Ariadne’s thread behind him so that he could find his way back out when he killed the Minotaur — he was Theseus, confronting nothing less frightening: a parent. How would he get out of this? ... Another door, another hallway, new voices. Let this journey continue, he thought. I’d love to never get there.”

The startling and grotesque metamorphosis that ends The Latinist might have earned the approval of Ovid himself. Like the classics that inspire it, The Latinist is an inventive wedding of the elegant and the barbaric. 

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