Monday, January 18, 2010

The Night Tourist, or Why Greek Myths are Timeless

In the myth of Orpheus, the hero loses the woman he loves to death, and braves the dangers of the Underworld to try and bring her back.  In The Night Tourist, by Katherine Marsh, our here, 14-year-old Jack, is unwittingly drawn into the same fruitless pursuit.  Jack-intensely intelligent and intensely lonely-is struck by a car.  Surprisingly unhurt, his rather distant father nonetheless sends him from their home in New Haven to New York to see the mysterious Dr. Lyons.  On his way back home, Jack meets a girl who appears to be his age, Euri.  He follows her into the bowels of Grand Central Station, and from there into a journey through the New York Underworld, in search of the mother he lost as a young boy.

This short little book about a motherless boy searching for love and connection in a cold and lonely world is enchanting.  Though meant for young adults, this novel is engaging enough that adult readers can find meaning and enjoyment from its pages. The Underworld as imagined by Marsh is both alluring and frightening, where the dead are treated with benign neglect while they try to work out whatever troubles are keeping them from "going over" to the Elysian Fields.  As long as they stay underground during the day and don't try to communicate with the living, they are allowed to roam the skies above New York, haunting their loved ones and hanging out in pubs listening to a literal Dead Poets' Society read from their immortal works.  Try to go out in the daylight or get back to the world of the living, however, and the ominous guards, led by the corrupt Clubber and his dog Cerberus, will come looking for you.  In a way Jack is searching as much for a way to move on as any of the dead surrounding him in the Underworld.  As he discovers the answers to his mother's death-and life-and death, he comes to realize that the way can only be forward.  Looking back only causes tragedy-both literally and figuratively-for him and his new friend.

To be sure, there are holes in the internal mythology of the story that are never fully explained-like why Jack is able to get to the Underworld in the first place, or how it is that he can do things that only the dead are supposed to be able to do despite the fact that he is still alive. That said, I still found the story engaging.  What the story lacks in depth it more than makes up for in imagery.  As a first novel, I think it is a great attempt, and I look forward to more from this author in the future.

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