Obsession and Betrayal in Darkest Academia


Early mornings at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. A remarkable excavation on the River Tiber. Enigmatic funerial inscriptions, dashing doctoral students, volatile sexual chemistry.

Such ingredients could account for a new Indiana Jones film, or Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster. In this case you’ll find them in Mark Prins’s debut novel The Latinist, a compelling take on dark academia published earlier this year.

Tessa Templeton, a PhD student and classics scholar at Oxford, has her life upturned upon learning that her advisor Chris Eccles is attempting to sabotage her career. An American abroad, jockeying for position in the high stakes academic footrace, Tessa’s existence is one of obsessive study, fueled by an inner flame that few around her can relate to.

So consumed is she by her work, Tessa doesn’t realize how thin her safety net really is. Chris’s betrayal puts her resilience to the test.

Doubling as a heady investigation of iambic verse, The Latinist serves as a relatable look at professional fixation. As the world around her crumbles, Tessa forges ahead the only way she knows how: through her passion. “I don’t understand how you can care more about your field than about the people who love you,” admonishes her ex-boyfriend.

As Prins makes clear, it doesn’t matter if her peers understand Tessa or not. Ambition grants her but one gear – fifth – even if it sometimes leaves her “raw, unhappy, and desolate.” Occasionally sympathetic, other times frustrating, always prying, Tessa has the makings of a truly multifaceted protagonist, a credit to the author. Her maturation is especially striking given the callowness of her antagonist, Chris, whose mind we also inhabit for stretches at a time.

Veering between white male fragility, misguided egoism, and something like pure evil, Chris is a boss you wouldn’t wish upon anyone. “I’m trying to save you from yourself,” he tells Tessa mere hours after sabotaging her work in public.

For all the time we spend in Chris’s head, readers will have a tough time rooting for him. His “love” – or whatever it is – for Tessa feels like a moral gray area that never quite materializes. Regardless, it does sweeten the cake when Prins gives this “arsehole” his eventual comeuppance.

In The Latinist, Prins supplies us not only with a rousing (if ill-starred) courtship, but also a viable academic conundrum, an archeological whodunit that both mimics legitimate scholarship and correlates to Tessa and Chris in a clever, meta perspective. So convincing was Prins’s research, I wasn’t sure whether the poets and mysteries in this novel were fact or fiction (as it turns out, a mix of both).

After the fireworks and the fallout, what we’re left with in The Latinist is an undaunted young woman who will stop at nothing to sate her intellectual fixation. Or as she calls it: “Her tether to the ancient past, the glimmering interface between now and then that had always been made up of language.”

Eric Olson
Eric Olson
Eric Olson is a Seattle-based novelist and essayist living in the Central District. He works as an environmental engineer, managing polluted sites west of the Cascades, and also plays guitar in local outfit Caveman Ego. You can learn more about him and his work at ericolsonwriting.com.


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