77 The Chess Garden, Brooks Hansen

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The Chess Garden, Brooks Hansen, Riverhead, 1996 (c1995), ISBN 1-57322-563-0, $14.00, 464pp.

While this book is incredibly similar to two of my favorites– Jonathan Carroll’s Bones of the Moon and Neil Gaiman’s A Game of You–it also has enough differences that its effect on me was less than ideal. In my favorites, the protagonist flips between a fantasy world and a real one, the fantasy acting as an allegory to the real. In The Chess Garden, the fantasy world is a series of letters written by the protagonist: as the book unfolds, what first you take as fantasy becomes just a long-spun yarn, tales for the kids back home. Yet these are as allegorical as those sections of the other books, possibly more so, because herein the main character is consciously crafting the story, rather than it happening in dreams. This fallback on realism undermines the mystical, magical aspect, like when a character in a movie winks at the camera, destroying the fictional illusion.

This is unfortunate because so much of this book is near my heart. It combines a love for games, intellectual exploration of the metaphysical realm, a fantasy story, and realistic characters. The basic plot is the life story of Dr. Gustav Uyterhoeven, a 19th century Dutch physician and researcher, who finds that his homeopathic beliefs are more and more at odds with his ratiocentric colleagues, even when his conclusions and theirs correspond. The structure of this novel, however, is much more complex, beginning at the end with the death of his wife, then flashing back upon itself in leap frog fashion, interspersed with the last letters that he wrote to his wife from South Africa.

I may not have been as moved by this as I could have been–although I should admit to a moistness around the ocular region near the end of the last letter–but I suspect that others may feel differently. This is due in large part to what you bring to this book, the experience of other, similar books and your own interests. I declare myself non-objective on this one, and rest my case.

[Finished June 1999]

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