Jennifer Egan’s deft storytelling abilities are unmistakable in her most recent and compelling work, The Keep.  In this exemplary novel, Egan’s characters congregate at a medieval castle somewhere in Eastern Europe, “Austria, Germany, or the Czech Republic,” and what unfolds is a portentous psychological tale in which the line between reality and imagination is blurred.  Ray, a prisoner in a maximum security facility, narrates Danny and Howard’s story for a creative writing class, but does so with such detail and clarity that the reader, as well as his teacher and fellow inmates, is left wondering who Ray really is and whether or not there is any truth to his story.

Danny and Howard are cousins, close in childhood, but separated in early adolescence by a “traumatic incident.”  After the incident, Danny goes on to become a high-school soccer star, while Howard becomes a juvenile delinquent experimenting with drugs and armed robberies before finally being sent away to reform school.  In adulthood, the tables have turned.  Now thirty-six and terrified by the notion that he is no longer the youngest one in a room, Danny has spent the past seventeen years of his life leading a somewhat meaningless existence.  Howard on the other hand, found success and enough wealth as a bond trader to retire at age thirty-four with his wife and two young children. 

Danny leaves New York to join in Howard’s restoration project of an eight hundred year old castle, complete with trapdoors, underground tunnels, and an old baroness still inhabiting the castle’s keep.  Howard’s vision in restoring the castle is a specialized boutique hotel dedicated to helping people exercise their imagination and return to a world not yet encroached upon by cell phones, the Internet, or networking technology.  An information junkie to the core, and very protective of his gadgets, Danny is horrified by this concept. 

As the story progresses and Danny finds himself forced to function without the comforts of technology, he soon becomes engulfed by his own paranoia which he dubs “the worm.”  Like the dark labyrinth of tunnels beneath the castle ensnaring earlier generations, the prison cell confining an incarcerated Ray, and the baroness’s obsession with the past in her stronghold of the keep and denial of the castle’s new ownership, “the worm” serves to trap Danny in a dreamlike state in which he is unable to separate fact from fiction.  Danny becomes convinced that Howard has lured him to the castle seeking revenge for an abhorrent childhood prank.  Danny is not the only one with insecurities however; Howard’s need for power stems from the desire for acceptance after spending his youth as a social outcast.

Egan’s novel is unconventional; her characters multifaceted.  Each character is searching for that metaphorical door that will release them from their tormented realities.  For Ray, it is fiction that will offer an escape, for Danny it’s the chance for redemption, for Howard it is letting go of previous wrongs committed against him, and for the baroness it’s reclaiming her ancestors’ castle.  The plights of Egan’s characters are not so outrageous that readers won’t find themselves without empathy.  As Egan profoundly demonstrates in The Keep, the human condition is one of both tragedy and joy, but above all, survival.

While the last section of the novel seems somewhat extraneous to the telling of Danny and Howard's story, Egan's articulate prose keeps readers emotionally invested, reluctant to put down her book.  A fascinating plot and morally complex characters help establish The Keep as a fine piece of contemporary fiction from an author whose writing deserves to be considered in a class of its own.  Truly a novel worthy of the highest praise, The Keep will leave readers breathless as Egan's characters confront their personal demons in purgatories they have imagined for themselves.      

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The Keep
by Jennifer Egan

Knopf, 2006

Reviewed by Kirsten Fournier
Kirsten Fournier is a graduate of the University of Delaware and received an M.S. in Psychology from RPI. Most recently, she completed graduate work in library and information science at Simmons College. In addition to freelance book reviewing, Kirsten conducts survey research for a large publishing, media, and events company. A native of upstate NY, she currently lives outside of Boston and some of her favorite authors include F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, T.C. Boyle, and Jeffrey Eugenides.