A friend passed this on to me, saying that I would enjoy it immensely – and he was right. The Lake of Dead Languages is a murder mystery set at a girls’ boarding school, The Heart Lake School for Girls, in the Adirondacks. The protagonist, Latin teacher Jane Hudson, is an old girl of the school who has come back to take up the position that has not been successfully filled since her own school days, when she was involved in a particularly nasty set of suicides that implicated the then-Latin teacher, Magistra Helen Chambers. Whispers of the curse of the school are raised when the pattern seems to be repeating itself – but could there be more to it than that?
Well, the answer is ‘obviously’, but the novel manages to weave its tale very cleverly indeed, and it took me a while to cotton on to what was going on (although I should add that I’m normally quite bad at guessing these things anyway). The book’s strength is that the truth about what happened in the last year that Jane spent at Heart Lake is gradually revealed during her first year there as teacher; memories, new evidence and fresh realisations are pieced together by Jane as much as by the reader, and it’s a nice twist on the unreliable narrator trope to make the narrator unreliable because she is not in full possession of the facts rather than because of deliberate deceit on her part.
In terms of the reception of the classics, there is nothing new about fiction exploring the power of a classics teacher over impressionable youth; Donna Tartt’s The Secret History did the same with a group of young college students. Helen Chambers fits very much into that role of teacher-idol, her pupils displaying fetishising curiosity about every aspect of her life that is compounded by the rather claustrophobic atmosphere of an all-girls’ school in the middle of the 1960s. (There is some exploration of the almost inevitable lesbian theme this introduces, but I’m glad to say it’s done with restraint and context rather than lurid spectacle.) Where Goodman manages to take this one step further is by putting Jane in the same position as the person she once adored, and thus enabling her to reflect on her role as once-idoliser and current idol. The level of reflection Jane engages in actually makes that role feel less of a stereotype and more of a real social situation that teachers and university instructors are placed in, particularly since Jane is very aware of her own flaws and unsuitability for the hero worship her pupils bestow on her.
Classics as a subject also provides a nice content-based counterpoint for the novel’s narrative. At a key point in the book, Jane translates book six of Virgil’s Aeneid with her surviving sixth formers, which turns out to be uncomfortably relevant to their lives, not only because of Aeneas’ descent into the world of the dead but also in his encounter with the post-suicidal Dido. It’s a neat, but not heavy-handed, way of illustrating the relevance of classics to our lives even if we aren’t inhabiting a murder mystery. Of course, there’s plenty of other classical content, mixed in with a good dose of general pagan fertility kit, particularly on the part of the teenagers and their celebration of imaginatively concocted rituals. But again, having an older narrator means that classics becomes more than the source of some weird and eclectic private acts.
Indeed, Latin becomes a source of liberation for Jane, who (it is eventually revealed) has used her Latin training to escape her failing marriage and gain some autonomy in the world, even if it does mean skulking back to her old school like a wounded animal to its lair. That said, her education, and her Latin in particular, is the tool that allows her to claw her way out of the dead end she got trapped in after college, and at the conclusion of the book, it feels as if her transition into a new and autonomous life has a chance of succeeding. There are some other, less liberatory elements in that success (some rather fortitous and hitherto unknown ancestry, a new romantic partner), but Latin is the bedrock of freedom for not only Jane but even her students – one of them is explicitly working towards a Latin scholarship to get her into college, reinforcing Latin’s status as a tool for crossing class boundaries. This, too, is a theme that runs through Jane’s own experience of Latin, since it was her skill at Latin which got her the scholarship into Heart Lake to begin with, and created the social bonds which were to end in tragedy. Latin gains authority as both a creator of community and a token of belonging, however much the narrative then goes on to question that authority.
If you enjoy murder mysteries and similar genres, then I would certainly recommend picking this up. There are some moments of eye-rolling, but they occured as Goodman tries to give the book a neat ending as a whole rather than as a result of the plot, and I found the writing engaging enough to have trouble putting the book down. There are some interesting twists on the traditional representation of classics in there, as well as an interesting and compelling story.