Previously unpublished in the UK, this is US author Chung's second novel which follows Katherine, a gifted mathematician, from childhood to adulthood. Ambitious (even though male colleagues seek to put her off), she wants to solve the Riemann hypothesis and, to do so, turns to a theorem with a mysterious history which is tied up with her family's hidden past during the Second World War. Chung studied mathematics at university and gives the reader—even this one who scraped a GCSE—a tantalising glimpse of the beauty and elegance of the subject.
The Tenth Muse is an elegantly constructed puzzle of a novel, in which two intertwined mysteries force Katherine to question constantly what is true and what is false – and whether those categories of knowledge are even adequate. The first is mathematical: ever since childhood, she’s been obsessed with cracking the Riemann hypothesis, one of the great unsolved maths problems, “which predicts a meaningful pattern hidden deep within the seemingly chaotic distribution of prime numbers”. Equally chaotic after the disorienting revelation about her parenthood is her home life, which brings us to Katherine’s second mission – unlocking the secrets of her family’s past... It should be said that the narrative has very little looping in it at all – and indeed much of the joy of The Tenth Muse derives from Chung’s writing, which is unadorned but expressive, shot through with moments of sparse lyricism. Katherine is an endearing narrator, whose descriptions of maths give even the most numerically illiterate reader (me) a sense of the exhilaration found in engaging with it.
Chung has already made a name for herself with her debut novel, Forgotten Country, which won an honourable mention for the Pen/Hemingway Award. She was also a Granta New Voice and a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow. She is a fiction editor at Guernica, and lives in New York.
In Katherine she has created a most memorable heroine, a sympathetic, mesmerising voice who tells a deceptively simple story centred on identity and a never-ending quest for knowledge and truth. Each of the narrative strains echoes each other. On a personal level Katherine longs to find out more about her mother, who leaves the family one day without warning. Even years later, when she tours the world as a mathematician, Katherine feels her absence: “To look out at the audience and see the answer to a lifelong question: Are you out there? Are you listening? Am I alone?”