DC resident and New Republic managing editor Katherine Marsh combines Greek mythology with elements of fantasy fiction in her first novel, The Night Tourist. Think Donna Tartt’s The Secret History meets J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter in the heart of New York City. Dumb it down for a ten year-old, and you have The Night Tourist.
Marsh spins her tale around Jack, an awkward high-school freshman who hovers around the Yale campus translating Latin verses and missing his deceased mother. When he goes out of his way to avoid conversation with a classmate, he’s accidentally hit by a car. His father sends him to a special doctor in New York, and what’s meant to be an afternoon trip to the city turns into a three-day adventure that changes Jack’s life.
In Grand Central Terminal, Jack meets Euri, a female ghost who lures him deep into the station and the mysterious New York underworld. Ghosts enter the secret realm by squeezing themselves through pipes in tunnels below the station or in the city’s fountains: “Euri’s hand tightened around his own. Before Jack even had a chance to cry out, he felt himself rising. His body stretched until it was as thin as a wire and began to spiral up through greenish-gray copper pipes.”
Jack spends the next three days dodging viscous dogs, attending plays, and traveling through fountains on a mission to locate his mother, whose name he finds in a book listing the residents of New York City’s underworld: “They ran outside, and Euri shot up into the sky, flying faster than Jack had ever flown before. His heart raced with excitement. In just a few minutes, he would meet his mom.”
Although Marsh eloquently combines her interests in ancient Greece and historical New York, The Night Tourist lacks depth in the fantasy realm. The author spins a colorful tale of an extraordinary underworld, yet she often uses the supernatural context to facilitate events that merit more explanation. Too often, events fall into place a little too easily.
Similarly, in describing an imaginary ghost town, Marsh lays out laws for the dead and the living within it; a number of these rules are broken without justification (much to Jack’s benefit). For example, Marsh writes that anyone who enters the underworld must be dead, yet Jack is magically in between life and death throughout the book—without any explanation as to why or how this is possible. Such loopholes may frustrate adult readers, and any sharp middle-schooler is likely to pick up on the same inconsistencies.
Another distracting question is whether a 14-year-old can really develop feelings of love in only three days. Jack is initially furious at Euri for leading him into the underworld: “You knew about the guards and the dog, what they would do to me. You knew, and you still had me come.” Yet after a very unromantic and chaotic three days, Jack’s emotions toward her change drastically: “Jack wished he could turn around. He reached back and felt her hand grip his. Jack’s eyes stung with tears and he suddenly felt relieved that Euri couldn’t see him. He couldn’t imagine living without her. He had to get her back [to the living world].” Given the short time span and the fact that Jack is such a social basket case, his newfound feelings come across as a bit forced.
The author is young, and The Night Tourist is a decent attempt at a first novel. Those familiar with New York will appreciate its references to so the city’s rich history, and Marsh’s creativity is inarguable. Here’s hoping that her potential results in more polished work in the future.
Hyperion Books for Children