cover image The Chess Garden: Or the Twilight Letters of Gustav Uyterhoeven

The Chess Garden: Or the Twilight Letters of Gustav Uyterhoeven

Brooks Hansen. Farrar Straus Giroux, $23 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-374-16015-9

A rare and exciting work of character and imagination, Hansen's new novel (after the highly praised Boone, which he coauthored with Nick Davis) is set in 19th-century Dayton, Ohio, in Europe and South Africa during the Boer War and on an imaginary island, the Antipodes. During his journey to the heart of the war, where he has volunteered to serve in a British-run concentration camp for forcibly displaced Boers, Dr. Gustav Uyterhoeven sends 12 letters to his wife, Sonja, in Dayton. The letters, fabulist explorations in the manner of Poe, Chesterton and Borges, describe a world where chess pieces, including a queen trapped in a tree, live, die, love, battle and philosophize. With a delightfully deft touch, Hansen carries this conceit off convincingly, and without a hint of sentimentality. Uyterhoeven is a remarkable character, dapper yet heartbroken, civilized, swinging his cane, journeying through sundry marvels with an air of concern and wonder that the reader comes to share. Meanwhile, back in Dayton, the reading of each new letter becomes an event; and, mysteriously, chess pieces mentioned in the letters begin to appear in the Uyterhoevens' garden. This is a complex and powerful work that achieves meaning in the most indelible way possible, through being an extraordinarily well-told tale. Black-and-white illustrations, not seen by PW. (Sept.)