New Release Review: The Maze at Windermere

Gregory Blake Smith, The Maze at Windermere (2018)

As regular readers of this blog know, I have the joy and honor of being a graduate of Carleton College (model for Blackstock College in the novel Tam Lin – click on the link for a tour). So when I learned one of my favorite professors in the English department there had just published a new novel, I couldn’t wait to read it and share it with you. I’m glad to say that it fully met and exceeded my expectations, and I hope that you’ll welcome it as well.

Set in Newport, Rhode Island, across more than three centuries, The Maze at Windermere takes us through a panorama of history as seen through the eyes of five memorable characters: a washed-up tennis pro, a predatory social climber, a budding novelist, a British spymaster during the Revolution, and an orphaned Quaker girl. Their stories are told in turn through several cycles, slowly revealing the similar themes and motifs that can guide such very different lives. At the conclusion, these narratives begin to meet and merge in a quicker and less orderly alternation, coming together into a whole that closes some gaps, but leaves some still tantalizingly open.

Having been at various overlapping times a bastion of religious freedom, a commercial center, an important military base, a playground for the rich, and a breeding ground for artists, Newport is a small but fascinating location from which to explore American history and culture. Smith’s command of different voices and points of view is dazzling — including writing in the voice of the young Henry James, which would seem quite daunting for any novelist. He moves seemingly without effort from one narrative to the next, writing in sometimes in first person, sometimes in third person, completely changing his tone and style while somehow retaining a sense of the underlying unity of his story. It’s quite an impressive achievement.

Fortunately, Maze never descends to being a mere parlor trick or showing off the writer’s verbal facility. At its heart are questions about life, the world, and our place in it that play out differently for each one of us, yet are always the same throughout the mortal journey we all share. How do we form connections that leave one another free? How do we embody our desires in a way that honors the deepest parts of ourselves, and of the other person? Some of Smith’s characters grow in their progress toward self-knowledge, while others make questionable moral choices. But by means of the healing distance of fiction, all stories can contribute to our own learning.

I was first introduced to the idea of the “nine cities of Newport” through Thornton Wilder’s novel Theophilus North, which remains one of my favorite novels. The Maze at Windermere will go on the shelf alongside it as another marvelous evocation not just of this particular place, but of the puzzling, mysterious, frustrating, exhilarating endeavor we call life. I hope you will enter this fictional maze, and maybe find a new favorite as well.