The Latinist: A Novel
- By Mark Prins
- W.W. Norton & Company
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Hannah Joyner
- January 17, 2022
This cerebral thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat — and make you want to pull out that old copy of Wheelock’s Latin.
Tessa Templeton, the protagonist of Mark Prins’ debut novel, The Latinist, is a graduate student at Oxford studying with the world-renowned classicist Christopher Eccles. Despite writing a brilliant dissertation about “the nature of power and subversion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” specifically in the myth of Apollo and Daphne, she receives rejection after rejection from the many colleges and universities to which she has applied for tenure-track faculty positions.
One day, when sorting through yet more disappointing responses, she opens an anonymous email suggesting that her advisor has intentionally damaged her career prospects by writing a negative recommendation.
At first, Tessa is sure the treacherous letter attached to the email is a hoax, a prank pulled by one of her friends. Gradually, she realizes that her mentor has indeed written it in order to keep her with him at Oxford for another year. When she confronts Chris, he claims that he has only Tessa’s interests at heart. Soon, it becomes clear to the reader (and eventually to Tessa) that his real goal for keeping her there is the same kind of obsessive love that led Apollo to chase Daphne despite her refusal of his advances.
Tessa tries to escape Chris’ grasp by traveling to Italy to research a project he had encouraged her not to pursue. Fascinated by an obscure Silver Age Roman poet, Tessa joins forces with classical archaeologists to piece together and translate grave markers and to exhume the remains of the tomb where the poet lies. What she finds at the necropolis includes evidence of a previously overlooked female poet. Tessa sees a link between the erasure of that poet and the erasure of her own reputation as an up-and-coming scholar.
She soon returns to Oxford to give a lecture at an important classics conference where she plans to announce her discovery to the world. When he learns of her plans, Chris is furious that she has found a way to circumvent his control. For the rest of the novel, he continues to act like Apollo and tries “to have [Tessa] treed” like Daphne.
This descriptive phrase is an example of the most fascinating feature of The Latinist: the author’s creative construction of classical scholarship. Although most of Prins’ academic references are fictional, they are inserted into the real academic discourse about the Roman world. For example, although the account of Tessa’s Roman poet is fictitious, the book in which she looks up that poet is quite real.
Even more fascinating is that Prins invents his own supposedly 2nd-century poetry in not only English translation, but also in the “original” Latin, using the complicated metrical system of choliambic verse (“limping iambs” which reverse the stresses at the ends of lines).
Prins also constructs Tessa’s academic presentation in which she raises the possibility that choliambic verse was not merely a poetic meter but “the prosody of [the] human form” — that is, a way of giving voice to the bodily experiences of a poet living with a disability. Prins’ literalizing of what Tessa finds in her research (here and elsewhere) is clever and thought-provoking, although not fully convincing.
The greatest weakness in the book is the inconsistent portrayals of the main characters. Tessa and Chris are given backstories designed to help readers understand them and sympathize with some of their behavior. Still, their motivations often remain unclear. Tessa is an especially confusing mix of extreme timidity and extreme aggression. Although sure she is deserving of a top place in her field, she nonetheless cowers in closets before major presentations, only to come out swinging in ways that are sometimes inappropriate. At other times, she inexplicably continues to trust Chris and give him the benefit of the doubt, even after he confesses to atrocious behavior.
Prins’ novel is cleverly structured with alternating sections told from the perspectives of each of the two main characters. The parallels between the story of Apollo and Daphne and the story of Chris and Tessa underline an important theme in the book: How power can be used and abused. Prins’ analysis of the toxic relationship between advisor and student is nuanced and thoughtful.
These links between the two main plotlines also unite what could easily seem like conflicting genres. Most of the time, The Latinist succeeds as both literary fiction and thriller; it is every bit as suspenseful as it is intellectually intriguing, with many of the features of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Disappointingly, the last few pages veer sharply away from that subtle brilliance. These scenes are boldly dramatic but unbelievable and simplistic, leaving readers unsatisfied.
Hannah Joyner is a freelance critic and an independent historian who lives in Takoma Park, MD. You can find more of her bookish conversations on her YouTube channel, Hannah’s Books.