• Review
By – August 11, 2021

Before the title page of Cyn­thia Ozick’s newest nov­el, Antiq­ui­ties, there is a pic­ture on an oth­er­wise blank page of a white-beard­ed man in a dark coat walk­ing along an exca­va­tion site in a desert. He’s gri­mac­ing slight­ly, which, with his aged and weath­ered face, makes him appear wise. The pho­to is cap­tioned sim­ply, Cousin William.”

Begin­ning with this nod to the past, Antiq­ui­ties sets its stage; it will be a nov­el about tir­ing exca­va­tions, about peo­ples and his­to­ries. Told in a series of diary entries, a retired lawyer and descen­dant of the famed archae­ol­o­gist Sir Flinders Petrie, Lloyd Wilkin­son Petrie, tries to uncov­er the enig­mat­ic nature of three men who have col­ored his life: his father, who took a mys­te­ri­ous trip to Egypt as a young man, which irrev­o­ca­bly changed him; Cousin William, who led exca­va­tions across Egypt and joined Lloyd’s father on his mys­te­ri­ous trip; and Ben-Zion, one of Lloyd’s class­mates at the Tem­ple Acad­e­my for Boys — an angli­can all-boys board­ing school in Westch­ester that opened in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and closed a few decades lat­er — who, despite being a social out­cast, cap­ti­vat­ed him.

Like these enig­mat­ic men, Lloyd grap­ples through the nov­el with want­i­ng to be an insid­er, as much as he is an out­sider. At the Tem­ple Acad­e­my for Boys, Lloyd want­ed accep­tance from his peers but faced their rejec­tion for his asso­ci­a­tion with Ben-Zion. Even at the time of his jour­nal­ing, when he’s liv­ing at the Acad­e­my, his for­mer class­mates and the school’s trustees alien­ate him. His only com­pa­ny is Hed­da, a Ger­man woman who man­ages the prop­er­ty. He finds solace in her, and yet he derides her in his jour­nal for her Ger­man her­itage. He’s inter­nal­ized a strict rev­er­ence for tra­di­tion and class con­ven­tion, and his desire to rebel against it — he pri­vate­ly believes — is his great­est obstacle.

Lloyd also grap­ples with the dif­fi­cul­ty of writ­ing mem­oir, which is his pri­ma­ry task in the nov­el: along with the oth­er trustees resid­ing at the Acad­e­my, Lloyd must write a short mem­oir — no more than ten pages — of his time attend­ing the school, so that their mem­oirs will replace the cur­rent text doc­u­ment­ing the school’s his­to­ry. He falls head­first into the process, quick­ly exceed­ing the ten-page lim­it, and yet he can’t con­vince him­self of its use­ful­ness. “[H]ow can I go on with my mem­oir, to what end, for what pur­pose?” he laments. What mean­ing can it have, except for its writer?” The read­er is left won­der­ing the same thing, and with the myths and his­to­ries of dif­fer­ent lands, peo­ple, and insti­tu­tions coat­ing the sto­ry, the ques­tion broad­ens; what role do they all serve? How do they help, and how do they harm?

In Antiq­ui­ties, Ozick has cre­at­ed an elu­sive and slow-burn­ing nov­el that, with her sharp prose, will grip fans of her work, along with new readers.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

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