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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Archivist by Martha Cooley

The Archivist by Martha Cooley. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998. ISBN: 0-316-15872-0

I've been reading my way through a list of so-called literary thrillers, but it's not really clear to me why this book was included. Literary yes, but thriller, no. This is a psychological novel, not an action story. I stuck with it primarily because of the main character, who is a librarian, an archivist actually, but archival work is often treated as a specialized branch of librarianship as it is here.

Our particular archivist is a middle-aged, solitary sort of person, still attempting to come to terms with his failed marriage, failed in the sense that his wife committed suicide after a lengthy stay in a mental institution. The entire middle section of the book is taken from the diary entries she made while there. She seems unable to come to terms with the Jewish holocaust, having only come to understand her own Jewish heritage as an adult. She ends her life in the same year in which the poet, T.S. Eliot's death occurred, 1965. Her husband, the Archivist, comes from a Catholic background, and still maintains a modicum of Christian belief, albeit without much active involvement. Still, this difference does affect their lives together, and contributes to their lack of understanding each for the other.

The poetry of T.S. Eliot is a major theme of the novel, since our archivist has in his care the letters from Eliot to his female friend in the United States, Emily Hale, which are not to be released for study or examination until 50 years after his death. In real life, these letters do exist, and are sequestered at Princeton University.

In our story here, a younger woman, a scholar, approaches the Archivist, wanting to read the letters, even though this is forbidden under the terms of the bequest. The budding relationship between the two of them becomes the springboard for an introspective and retrospective look at the Archivist's life, with many parallels and echoes from the poetry of Eliot.

The ending seems contrived, to me, at least, and not really justified by the rest of the book. But I won't spoil it for the determined reader who takes the trouble to read this book. Only slightly recommended.


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