The Stonehenge Letters

By Harry Karlinsky

The Stonehenge Letters is the second novel from Harry Karlinsky, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, and it’s very much a companion to his first, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects. That earlier novel was a speculative blend of fact and fiction presented as a scholarly exploration of the theories of Thomas Darwin, constructed out of old texts, letters, photos, and other exhibits. In The Stonehenge Letters the same basic set-up is used, with an investigator (a retired psychiatrist) heading into various archives to try and answer the question of why Sigmund Freud never received the Nobel Prize.

That question leads him down another alley entirely, as he uncovers a hidden history of the Nobel Prize. It seems that as the result of a late-life love affair, Alfred Nobel had left as part of his will the establishment of a further prize, open only to previous winners, for the Laureate who could best “solve the mystery of Stonehenge.”

Candidates are sent invitations to respond, resulting in letters from an all-star line-up of period intellectuals: Ivan Pavlov, Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt, and Marie Curie. None of their efforts is entirely satisfying to the jury (and in attempting to understand Curie’s reply – involving an early application of radiocarbon dating – they are forced to employ the services of Albert Einstein). Each contestant, however, is, as the saying goes, “on to something.” Meanwhile, another letter, discovered in the Prize’s “crackpot” file, turns out to be perhaps the most insightful of all.

The whole thing is a shaggy-dog story, the final point of which can be seen as provocative and profound or deflating and tongue-in-cheek. It turns out that imaginative genius and scientific progress are near allied, and, to return to the question that got everything rolling in the first place, perhaps this was the problem the Nobel people had with Freud: that he was too far ahead of his time.

As it takes the form of a clinical report or study, complete with appendixes and biographical notes, one won’t want to read The Stonehenge Letters for the quality of its writing, or its drama or narrative pulse. It is, instead, a light scientific fantasy presented in a minor key, and a curious entertainment about the mysteries of creation.

Review first published in Quill and Quire, June 2014.

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