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The Lake of Dead Languages is a book I bought on a whim, recommended to me by Amazon shortly after I purchased The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The book was compared, almost religiously so, to The Secret History, and I wasn't sure I liked Tartt's story about the loyalties and deceits of a group of collegiate classics students. But Goodman's book intrigued me in part because it was not set in a college. Instead, it is the story of Jane Hudson, a woman who comes back to the boarding school she went to as a girl to teach Latin, even though her memories of the place are shrouded in the darkness of her senior year, when both of her roommates committed suicide.

But Jane's story, and Goodman's book, is nothing like what I expected. Told through Jane's eyes, and in the present tense for most of the book (an interesting and involved choice), it tells the story of a young woman who is drawn back to her roots and forced to revisit a hazy, mysterious past. When reminders of her senior year tragedy start cropping up around her - diary entries, keepsakes, even behaviors by current students that remind Jane of her life twenty years earlier - she's forced to revisit the life she led, a scholarship student come to Heart Lake despite the feelings of both teachers and parents that she doesn't belong. Jane herself is one of a dozen interesting, deep characters with their own quirks and habits, and, by the end of the book, each person - be it Jane, her daughter Olivia, her students, the other teachers, or even the founder of Heart Lake School (who appears in the book once) - feels real and well-rounded, and no one is left innocent or blameless in a story that moves from mystery to an exploration of human nature.

Goodman took a risk by centering her story around a Latin class, not because of the story, but because of the use of Latin words, themes, and even the relation of classical Latin plots to the story at large, but she does it with such seamlessness that it almost gives the book a meta-reading quality: you are reading about the story you're reading without realizing it. Jane, too, manages to keep the right secrets at the right time, and we're pulled along with her as readers, forced to be either swept up by or swept under the current of her storytelling. The narration feels appropriate throughout for a story told by a woman whose life has been plagued by pain and bitter memories.

Goodman's only flaw is that, sometimes, her seemingly clever plot twists come across as simplistic. More than once, I was able to unveil a surprise forty or fifty pages before Jane realized the same thing I did, but rather than feeling bored or frustrated by being ahead of the protagonist in logic, it's a refreshing feeling. She manages to allow the reader a chance to come to conclusions before the narrator, and - unlike many books of its kind - Goodman allows us to have all the clues in our laps. The narrator shares what she knows. She doesn't keep any hidden knowledge, which means Jane and her reader are on even ground.

In a way, The Lake of Dead Languages is simply a thriller, but for the true thrill-seeker, I think it would fall short. While it's atmospheric, intense, and certainly holds a steadfast "creepy" air about it - an old mansion, abandoned woods, the howl of the ice on the lake a night, a legend 70 years in the making - it manages, at the same time to be a story about humanity and acceptance as much as it is a murder mystery. Jane's story doesn't just allow us to see into suicides that were never explained, but into troubled girls, personal pain, troubled marriages, secret relationships, and, ultimately, is a testament to the human condition. The ending is satisfying, if a bit simplistic, and does not end with a hero-teacher saving the world, but rather, with a woman finding herself a bit of justice.

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buecherwald
the forest-dweller

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