book review: The Latinist by Mark Prins

THE LATINIST by Mark Prins
January 2022, W.W. Norton

This is one of those frustrating novels that you want to grab by the shoulders and shake because it has all the potential in the world to be something extraordinary, but for whatever reason it seems content to just be Fine. Roughly tracing the outlines of the Apollo and Daphne myth, The Latinist follows Oxford classics scholar Tessa, who discovers that her supervisor, the renowned scholar and Head of Department Chris Eccles, is sabotaging her career. This novel’s main strength lies in this conceit — Prins does an eerily brilliant job at capturing the quiet horror of finding yourself trapped in a situation where you’re entirely dependent on another person, who you’re slowly realizing does not have your best interests at heart. Certain passages of this novel cut me to my core, made me feel physically ill with recognition. 

Unfortunately, Prins is determined to undermine his own fantastic setup by indulging the urge to humanize Chris in ways that I felt pulled against the novel’s main objectives. At first, I didn’t mind reading the passages from Chris’s perspective, as they initially just serve to corroborate how disturbing his behavior is; it seemed like a harmless if unnecessary addition. But then there’s a whole subplot involving his dying mother that ultimately doesn’t go anywhere worthwhile, that I was just itching to cut out of the manuscript altogether. What is even accomplished by reiterating to the reader that Chris is a fallible human? We know that from the start, and having that point belabored just feels patronizing. 

I have a few other complaints — for whatever reason Prins likes to throw in a mini-flashback on every other page, telling the reader about a scene that had happened two days prior, rather than just showing that scene to the reader in real-time; there’s also an anthropological discovery made partway through that hinges on such an enormous assumption that it was rather maddening that none of the characters seemed to question it — but on the whole, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy reading this. Prins’s writing is sharp and readable, Tessa is a fantastically written character, and certain passages that deal with obsession and power really sing. It just feels a bit aimless and rushed in places and I think really would have benefited thematically from keeping its narrative focus on Tessa.

Thank you to Netgalley and W.W. Norton for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. 

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