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Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen
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Chess Garden (edition 1996)

by Brooks Hansen

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297437,787 (4.09)9
Member:hemlokgang
Title:Chess Garden
Authors:Brooks Hansen
Info:Riverhead Trade (1996), Edition: 1st Riverhead trade pbk. ed, Paperback, 480 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:Book Club, South Africa

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Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen

Recently added byprivate library, seth_g, wpwhite, rolandperkins, C.C.Weldon, RobSchultz, sdahlin, sawtooth, Candiss

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This book contains one of the best religio-philosophical ("spiritual," if you must) fantasy allegories I've read -- I'd class it with the Well-built City Trilogy of Jeffrey Ford, George MacDonald's Lilith, and the Renaissance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. It takes place in the "Antipodes," an island country populated by animate game pieces (and thus evocative of Through the Looking Glass).

But the allegorical fantasy is framed by a modern novel that recounts a philosophical/theological quest on the part of a Dutch pathologist-cum-mystic, and the community that he inspires after settling in Dayton, Ohio. It provides a compelling human story set firmly in the real world of "American metaphysical religion" detailed in Catherine Albanese's excellent A Republic of Mind and Spirit, and motivated by some of the fundamental dilemmas involved with scientific and humanitarian impulses.

The most powerful allegories are bearers of real human pain and struggle. I didn't cry over the Hypnerotomachia until I had completed months of study following my first full reading of the book. For The Chess Garden it took only until I started to consider this review and to reflect back on the identities of some of the figures in the allegory.

The settings and characters of the fantasy's frame--or foundation, rather--are so well-researched and so credible that I ended up exploring reference materials out of curiosity to know which of the supporting characters were from the actual history of medicine, belles lettres, and alternative religion. Many of them were. There was a little comparative weakness in the treatment of gaming details. The text's only anachronism that was obvious to me was the mention of the game Pente (first published in 1971) in a letter supposedly written in 1901.

Ultimately, an important reflection of this book concerns the power of fantasy narrative to effect spiritual growth and healing, and to that extent, it might be classed with such works as The Neverending Story and The Princess Bride. In both of those books, there is a recognition of how such stories can be a bridge between children and the wisdom of their elders, but the emphasis there is decidedly on the subjectivity of the children. In these "Twilight Letters," it is the subjectivity of the elderly Dr. Uyterhoeven that takes the foremost place, with significant implications also for his wife-then-widow.

I can see how this book escaped my notice for twenty years. Despite the comparisons I've made here, it is unique in the way that it combines the quotidian and the fantastic, and it could be challenging or even off-putting for readers who depend on the immersive conventions of either fantasy or realistic narrative. The rewards of reading it, however, far exceed the challenges.
4 vote paradoxosalpha | Jun 30, 2014 |
In Ohio at the turn of this century, the wife of Dr Uyterhoeven receives a series of strange letters from her husband, who reports being shipwrecked on his way to South Africa, and landing in a fantastical country inhabited by chess pieces, dominoes and dice.

Intercut with these letters, the story of his life unfolds: his youth and marriage in Holland, his troubled scientific career in Berlin, the genesis of his unusual philosophy and of the chess garden. History and allegory are expertly interwoven in this tale of spiritual progress, a novel of dazzling imagination.

A wonderfully bewitching compendium of stories told in a lucid prose that is free of any stylistic gimmickry. A highly absorbing and endlessly inventive antipodean adventure.




*note to self. Copy from A. ( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
This book is why I read. Bought a copy and sent it to my Dad in Florida.

I remember reading this in the lobby of a run down hotel while under house arrest in the Bahamas while waiting for my work visa to come in. ( )
  BooksForDinner | Oct 3, 2011 |
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