cover image In Babylon

In Babylon

Marcel Moring. William Morrow & Company, $24 (417pp) ISBN 978-0-688-17645-7

The arc of this grand, engrossing novel spans four centuries and two continents. Trapped by ""the winter to end all winters"" in an isolated house in the country, Nathan Hollander, a 60-year-old Dutch fairy-tale writer, and his niece, Nina, the last of the Hollanders, delve deep into their family history. In order to claim the house, left to him by his uncle Herman, a famed sociologist who died in the arms of a prostitute, Nathan was required to compose a biography of the dedeased; now that the project is nearly complete, Nathan has ""allowed"" himself to revisit the home where he spent much of his youth. After arriving in a ferocious snowstorm, Nathan and Nina must combat not only the fierce cold but also the mysterious work of some hostile force. To relieve the grimness of their plight, Nathan shares Herman's biography--which he describes as ""more of a family chronicle""--with Nina, so she can learn the history of the clan from which she was long estranged. As the two uncover the house's mysteries, Nina learns of Chaim and Magnus, ancestral ghosts who have visited Nathan for 50 years; of the family profession: clock making; of their migration from Poland to Holland in the 17th century, where they took on their adopted country's name; of their flight to America during WWII and their return to Holland; of Nathan's brother and Nina's father, Zeno, a ""20th-century prophet"" who disappeared 30 years earlier. Moring's prose is fluid and erudite, and the transitions between the many eras masterfully achieved; only occasionally does the narrative linger too long in the past or a philosophical discussion (sometimes related via a fairy tale) impede the flow of the text. As historically instructive as it is suspenseful, this is an impressive, accomplished tale of a perennially uprooted family and its last remaining members seeking their home in an inhospitable world. (Apr.) FYI: M ring is a bestseller in the Netherlands, where this book was first published in 1997.