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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Shadow of the Evening by Laura Brylawski-Miller

March 1, 2016

Eloquent Books:  Durham, CT
2010 (PB)

Laura Brylawski-Miller has penned an eloquent and sometimes disturbing novel that follows the entwined yet estranged relationship between two cousins—the pragmatic David Kelsey and the brilliant Alexander Woodford.  The narrative begins with two boys—the younger David and fifteen year old Alexander—meeting for the first time at Ashland, the family estate in rural Virginia, for a summer-long holiday, told from David’s twelve year old perspective.

David’s father has abandoned his wife and son, while Alexander’s father has recently died young and unexpectedly.  The two boys bond immediately, perhaps in part because they are being reared by strong-willed and essentially self-indulgent mothers.  It is a magical summer, full of swimming and adventure and most of all remembered by David as the Summer of the Etruscans.  For Alexander, an introverted and bookish young man, is fixated on the ancient civilization that pre-dated the rise of Rome.  His knowledge of the Etruscans is wide and deep and he draws his younger cousin into his near-mystical world of this long-ago people.  He even tries to solve the mysteries of the Etruscan language—a tongue that had thus far evaded the best efforts of linguists to decipher.

The languid and idyllic summer of the Etruscans draws to a close and with it the friendship of the two boys.  Alexander and his mother move to Baltimore from their previous home in Maine, and David and his mother move to the alien culture of Beverly Hills, California.  Hoped-for Christmas visits at Ashland never materialize and the two cousins inevitably grow apart and lose touch.  There are occasional bits of information that Davis is able to learn about his cousin—he has become a highly respected and published scholar in the highly select world of epigraphy—the study of ancient languages—and his spent much of his time in Greece and the Near East.

Then thirty years later David, now a successful New York corporate lawyer, receives a note from Alexander, asking him to safeguard an enclosed digital photo card.  The note has obviously been written by a soul tortured by doubt and guilt.  The photos show ancient artifacts—vases and gold trappings and funerary statues—all apparently in situ in some tomb-like room.

Shortly thereafter David learns that Alexander is dead, the victim of a fall from a cliff in Tuscany.  He also learns that it may not have been accidental—that Alexander had suffered from schizophrenia for most of his life, and that it might have been suicide.  David determines that he must go to Italy, to Volterra where Alexander had been living, to reclaim the body and to hopefully solve the mystery of his cousin’s last days.

The narrative then switches to Alexander’s diary, backtracking to his decision to fulfill his lifelong dream of solving the mysteries of the Etruscan.  He takes up residence in a seminary/hostel just outside the lovely hill town of Volterra, a medieval community built on the ruins of the Etruscan civilization.   He tells of his slow integration into the ambiance of Volterra, of his love for the incredibly beautiful Tuscan countryside, of his meeting and joining forces with a community group of fellow enthusiasts self-identified as the Etruscan Circle, of falling in love with the beautiful and mysterious Dottoressa Diana Cortesi, the inspirational leader of the Circle.  Sadly, the journal also tracks the unhinging of a fabulous intellect and its descent into paranoia and perhaps even madness.

The final narrative is told in the third person and traces David’s quest to solve the mysteries of his brilliant but troubled cousin’s last days.  He quickly falls prey to the charms of Volterra and the almost painful beauty of the Tuscan countryside; he is welcomed into the comforting surroundings of the Etruscan Circle and their passion to preserve that civilization’s history; he is also introduced into the darker world of the tambaroli, the tomb raiders of Italy, and their possible link to Alexander’s anguish and eventual death.

This is a novel rich in nuance and subtlety.  The Tuscan countryside comes alive in these pages, as do the characters whose strengths and weaknesses, frailty and heroism make them achingly human.  But I must also note that this is one of the most poorly edited books I have ever read.  There are scores of errors—the kind that result when apparently all editing was done by spellcheck!  I have resigned myself to expecting this sort of slapdash editing in e-books, but not in hardcopy editions.  This author, and this fine novel, deserve better.

Three trowels for The Shadow of the Evening.