Author(s): Erica Noonan, Globe Staff Correspondent Date: January 17,
2002 Page: D3 Section: Living
Not since Donna Tartt's blockbuster academic murder mystery, "The Secret History," have classical languages been such a life-threatening course of academic study.
In Carol Goodman's impressive debut novel, "The Lake of Dead Languages," devotion to Latin lessons at the exclusive Heart Lake School for Girls in upstate New York is a dangerous occupation. In fact, the boarding school's top Latin scholars seem to have a problem surviving past senior year. And one teacher is carrying around the darkest of secrets. Two decades ago, Latin instructor Jane Hudson was a Heart Lake student herself. Back then, Jane and her roommates, Lucy and Deirdre, were obsessed with studying the classics, arranging trysts with local boys, and prowling the banks of Heart Lake.
But during the winter of their senior year, the icy lake waters claimed the lives of Jane's friends in what appeared at the time to be a mysterious suicide pact. A generation passes, and Jane finds herself drawn back to Heart Lake. She is offered a position teaching Latin to a new breed of students - angry, rebellious, and disturbed girls dumped at the school by their uncaring parents.
For a short time, Jane naively hopes Heart Lake will offer her closure. But she finds herself facing the 20-year-old tragedy that killed her friends, and the unanswered questions they left behind.
When pages from Jane's old schoolgirl journal begin to appear in strange places, Jane knows she is not the only one pondering the long-ago deaths.
Jane believes the messages must be the work of a cruel student playing a practical joke. But after one of her students drowns, Jane sees that Heart Lake's brutal history intends to repeat itself.
"The Lake of Dead Languages" is a gothic and elegant page turner, made more believable by Jane's even and balanced narration. This novel will keep even jaded mystery readers guessing. Goodman also does an admirable job of developing believable characters from both generations of Heart Lake students, giving all the girls a disturbing intensity found only in boarding school friendships.
While the hostility of Heart Lake - the slippery precipices and jagged rocks - seems a bit like overkill, one can forgive Goodman's desire to drive home the physical danger surrounding these girls. Readers also have to accept the occasional plot contortion that throws together characters just in time for a showdown.
But the sheer enjoyability of "Dead Languages" overcomes these minor complaints and provides a satisfying escapist winter read for lovers of mystery, and even classical languages.
Erica Noonan can be reached at email@example.com.
January 20, 2002
Robin Vidimos Special to The Denver Post
It's been 20 years since Jane Hudson has been a part of the Heart Lake School for Girls, but the breakup of her marriage, combined with the realization that despite her Vassar degree perhaps the only thing she's really trained to do is teach Latin, brings her back to her old stomping grounds, this time as a teacher. She moves into a cottage on campus with her daughter, Olivia, with the firm hope of making a new life.
It is, at best, a move filled with dissonance. The women who were once her teachers are now her peers. Miss Buehl the science teacher is now Dean Buehl, the headmistress. The art teacher, Tacy Beade, still expects her students to put the art supplies away precisely.
As disquieting as these familiar faces is the shared memory of Helen Chambers, a teacher who left the school during a scandal in Jane's senior year. Jane is conscious of the futility of trying to fill the shoes of this particularly demanding mistress of Latin who taught her students of the life that lay, long dormant, in the dead language.
It isn't surprising that the characteristics of the staff have changed little in two decades; they are largely what define the school's atmosphere. Jane is surprised, though, to find equally familiar behaviors in her students. While girls in her day didn't wear skull rings or paint their nails blue, they shared these students'
fascination with the schools' legends. She finds several of her students in the senior class gathering, just as Jane and her roommates did, to make offerings to the lake. She hears from them the same stories about the tragedies that befell the family of the founder and how these deaths are symbolized by several large rocks sitting in the shallows of the lake.
It is surprising - and a little disturbing - to find these tales continue to be passed from class to class. Her concern takes a quantum leap the day she finds a familiar page that takes her back to her own senior year. It is a page ripped from a journal that went missing during her last semester at school. The journal relates the pain and the subsequent scandal that arose when both her roommates committed suicide.
All too soon, the actions of her students begin to feel uncomfortably familiar. Someone seems to be determined to re-enact the events of Jane's final year at the school. Long-forgotten totems begin to reappear, and the girls in her old suite of rooms seem to be acting, eerily, as she and her roommates did. When one of these students survives a suicide attempt, Jane is forced to revive old memories and reopen an investigation that she'd been grateful to leave behind. Her moves are a necessity - it seems that whoever is behind this bout of violence is determined that Jane not escape this time.
"The Lake of Dead Languages" is built from a first-person narrative that combines the advancing present with illuminating flashbacks. The memories of how Jane came to be who and where she is hold the key to the unfolding events. The student fascination with ancient legend and rites is going to bring some unfortunate comparison between "The Lake of Dead Languages" and "The Secret History," by Donna Tartt. Though Goodman's work bears a surface resemblance, she lacks Tartt's sly humor. A better comparison might be to DeMaurier's "Rebecca."
"The Lake of Dead Languages," even though occasionally telegraphing some punches, shares the same atmospheric surroundings and innocent narrator. It is a book that needs the roar of a fire to ward off its psychic chill.
Robin Vidimos is a freelance writer who regularly reviews books for The Denver Post and Buzz in the 'Burbs.