cover image Prince


Ib Michael. Farrar Straus Giroux, $25 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-374-23723-3

By turns solemn and whimsical, Danish novelist Michael's American debut brings together a young boy and a dead 19th-century sea captain's restless spirit, in a luminous exploration of identity and youth. Malte is a 12-year-old abandoned city boy, a charity boarder at the rustic Sea View guest house in a Danish fishing village during the summer of 1912. When he finds a coffin on the beach, nobody can identify the corpse of the sailor it contains. But Aviaja, the enfeebled, reclusive old woman who lives at Crow Towers, exhibits a cryptic concern for the deceased. When she dies later that summer, she bequeaths her fortune to the local parish on the condition that a requiem be performed to commemorate the dead seaman. His mysterious identity and his relationship to Aviaja are questions throughout the novel, while Malte's boyish make-believe, his wildly imaginative and mischievous exploits, occupy the story's foreground. The sailor's shape-shifter spirit befriends Malte and fancies himself the boy's guardian angel, intent on preserving the sanctity of youth (""To be let loose in the wonderland of childhood--that is what it means to be born a prince"") and thereby reclaiming his own. The mysteries unravel during the final third of the book--not in the puzzle-piece mode of conventional mystery plots, but via straightforward confession--and the dark, hallowed mood of this section contrasts sharply with the more frolicsome tone describing Malte's carefree adventures. With a supernatural flourish, the subplot of Flaubertian romance between the Sea View's chambermaid and a French impostor converges with the drama of the mysterious corpse, and in the end Malte's newfound literacy divines the seaman's identity in an ironic, essentially tensionless moment. The wholesome, folkloric tenor of this adult fairy tale creates an old-fashioned sensibility and includes the occasional grandiose pronouncement, but the novel endears with its glorious seascapes and its portrayal of the wonders of youth. (Nov.)