I Hear You Knocking

I really wish I had discovered how marvelous audiobooks are for long drives years ago. My God, listening to audiobook rather than music makes the drive so much more enjoyable; sure, I do zone out every once in a while when I am driving and listening–I always go off on some kind of mental tangent at some point or another when I am highway driving for a long time, which means I sometimes have to rewind because I missed something–but my old fears of audiobooks in the car (I would get so involved in the story I’d stop paying attention to the driving, or the driving would require so much attention I wouldn’t be able to listen to the book anymore) also proved to be for naught. The drive is still the worst part of the trip (other than the not-being-able-to-sleep thing), but audiobooks have dramatically improved the entire experience so much that I almost don’t mind the drive anymore….almost.

I also wish I’d started reading Carol Goodman a lot earlier. I don’t recall how or why I first discovered her work, but I am a big fan and I was delighted, after reading (and enjoying the hell out of) The Lake of Dead Languages recently to go ahead and download The Night Villa for the trip.

It may just be my favorite Goodman to date.

When the first call came that morning I was with a student, so I didn’t answer it.

“Don’t worry,” I told Agnes Hancock, one of my most promising classics majors, “the machine will get it.”

But it stopped after the third ring.

“I guess whoever was calling changed his mind,” Agnes said, relacing her fingers to conceal the ragged cuticle on her right thumb. She’d been gnawing on it when I found her waiting outside my door–ten minutes early for my eight o’clock office hours. Most of my students were sound asleep at this hour, which was why I held my office hours so early: to discourage all but the most zealous. Agnes was definitely a zealot. She was on a scholarship, for one thing, and had to maintain a high average, but Agnes was also one of those rare students who seemed to have a genuine passion for the material. She’d gone to a high school with a rigorous Latin program and gotten the highest score on the national Latin exam in the state. Not shabby for a state as big as Texas. She wasn’t just good at declensions, though she had the ability to translate a line of ancient poetry and turn it into poetry again, and the agility of mind to compare the myths from one culture to those of another. She could have a successful academic career in classics or comparative literature. The only problem was that her personal life was often chaotic–a result, I suspected, of her looks.

So far, the majority of the Goodman novels I’ve read all have to do with private schools and usually involve a Classics professor; just as in The Lake of Dead Languages, our main character in The Night Villa is a professor of Latin, who can actually sight-read (translate as she reads), but unlike the others, (set in Ne England) when The Night Villa opens we realize our main character is actually a professor at the University of Texas and lives in Austin. The others also were more Gothic in nature; brooding old buildings that used to be family mansions, now converted into schools and dormitories, slightly older heroines with dark secrets in their past that come back to haunt their present, the “woman in danger” trope replayed and revamped beautifully, with poetic writing and vivid settings you can see in your head (had Goodman published back in the 1970s and 80s, I guarantee all the books would have a young woman with long hair and long nightgown running away from a creepy mansion with a light on in one window). Our main character is Sophie Chase, a young woman teaching at UT with a sad backstory–orphaned young, raised by her grandparents and her aunt (M’Lou); she also had a long term relationship with a young man named Eli that ended up badly after she lost their baby in a tragic fall and he became involved with a mysterious, cult-like group. The opening of the book is a lot more violent and in-your-face than what I’ve become accustomed to with Goodman’s work; Sophie and some other professors are interviewing students for a possible internship with an archaeological dig going on in Herculaneum (a city which suffered the same fate as Pompeii and by the same volcanic eruption, but didn’t the press Pompeii did). During Agnes’ interview a troubled young man she used to date comes into the interview room with a gun and starts shooting–Sophie is shot in the chest and loses a part of her lung, but she ends up going on the trip to Italy as one of the other professors who was supposed to go was killed by the gunman. They are being hosted on the island of Capri in the bay of Naples by a billionaire software designer with an interest in archaeology. He has built his own villa on the island as a replica of the villa they are excavating in Herculaneum, the Villa della Norte, the Night Villa. A discovery of some papyrus scrolls in the ruins that reveal some information about an ancient slave girl from the time also has intrigued Sophie, which is part of the reason she has agreed to go–as well as wanting to get away from Austin for a while. (Sophie wrote her dissertation on the slave girl; this discovery offers to give her more insight and information about the girl for the book she is writing.)

The book is, if you’ll pardon my language, fucking amazing. Not only do we have Sophie dealing with the aftermath of a massive emotional and physical trauma (getting shot and losing part of your lung is a serious fucking trauma), but also the fallout from the end of her relationship many years earlier; a kind of feeling of responsibility for Agnes and how she is dealing with the guilt and trauma of the boyfriend going nuts and on a shooting spree (it ended with him shooting himself); and of course the mystery of the scrolls. The scrolls also give a beautiful insight into life in ancient Herculaneum and in the Roman Empire and also tell a story about the slave girl. It’s an exceptionally good novel, literate and smart and complex and multi-layered; and I haven’t even covered everything in the story here. Sophie is strong and likable and vulnerable; she makes for a great heroine, and she also has so much empathy for other people you can’t help rooting for her.

The book, set mostly on Capri, reminded me a lot–in a good way–of Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic with its Corfu island setting; Goodman is also exceptional about setting and place. I could see the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius; the ruins of the city buried by the eruption; and I also love how she weaved mythology and the ancient mysteries as an integral foundation of the story. I would even go so far as to say Goodman is the modern equivalent of Mary Stewart–which is high praise indeed.