Victoria N. Alexander seems to dislike a lot of things. She seems to dislike the obese, who are either willfully ignorant or weak and corrupt. She doesn’t like medication – surely, PTSD and depression aren’t so serious as all that, the book wonders? She doesn’t like money or GMOs or really mass-produced anything–what do you mean you can’t afford artisan, organic everything? You aren’t – shudder – poor, are you? Bullies and conspiracy theorists, at least, are given a semi-sympathetic eye, but at its worst, Locus Amoenus reads like little more than an organized list of Alexander’s least favorite things about modern American life.
But eventually a book must become more than simply a list of things one dislikes, so onto her list is grafted Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s masterpiece of indecision. After 9/11, a young widow and her son move to Amenia, a rural New York community where any family who hasn’t lived there for generations is considered ‘new’. When Gertrude tries to introduce healthier lunch options to the local schools, she is derided and mocked until she takes Hamlet out of school completely, and this black mark on both their records leaves them an object of suspicion for years to come. Hamlet is all set to ride out his waning young adulthood hating his new stepfather, Claudius, and pining after Ophelia, a weekender whose father Polonius stopped bringing up when she and Hamlet became too close, when a former teacher he knew in New York City, Horatio, comes to him with dire news: 9/11 was an inside job, and Hamlet’s father died for nothing.
As you may have gathered from my intro, I very much dislike large chunks of Locus Amoenus. That said, I don’t dare deny Alexander’s technical skills. She has a gift for prose that makes the book remarkable in some respects, language that begs to be read aloud at times just to revel in the feel of it. And the book’s conclusion, particularly the final pages, are phenomenal. I reread those last pages more than once, laughing giddily at the audacity, at the perfect marriage of theme and execution contained within. Where was that during the book’s lengthy sections that seem to exist largely so that Alexander can settle a score?
Locus Amoenus was a frustrating read, weak ideas strongly executed. The book’s many, many, many jabs at the townsfolk of Amenia come off as uncomfortably personal. Is that because Alexander lives on a sheepfarm in Amenia just like her protagonist and has pulled the stereotyped supporting characters from her experiences there? Or is it because Hamlet himself, our narrator, is such a snide, grating little snot? Either way, Locus Amoenus is, above all, a mean book. But I can’t deny that it had some power, that it has stuck with me in the days since I put it down and tried to step back from some of my distaste for Alexander’s sense of humor so I could write this review. She is a talented writer, and I have no doubt that there is an audience for this, but Locus Amoenus is too sour to work for me even as a piece of dark comedy. There’s brilliance here, but you’re going to have to get down into the mud and fight for it.
Cal Cleary is a librarian and critic in small-town Ohio. You can read more of his work at his blog, The Comical Librarian, and you can follow him on Twitter @comicalibrarian.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Permanent Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.