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In The Lake of Dead Languages, by Carol Goodman, Jane Hudson has returned to her old boarding school as a Latin teacher. Her ex-husband mocked her chances of supporting herself as a Latin major, but fortunately Heart Lake School offers this Old Girl a teaching post with housing for herself and her little girl.
Heart Lake School has the typical boarding-school ghost stories, while Jane has her own ghosts. When she was a student, her two roommates both died tragically, and when the story opens, adult Jane still wonders if she could have done more to save them. Jane, her hometown friend Lucy, and their roommate Deirdre, became an inseparable trio, dedicated to their Latin studies and their Latin teacher, Helen Chambers. Now, as the Heart Lake Latin teacher, Jane’s has three very promising students, probably her favorite students. These three girls are roommates and close friends, and also see Jane as their favorite teacher. Then, one of these girls attempts suicide, in the same room and in the same way as Jane’s roommate once did, bringing up everything Jane’s tried to forget and ignore.
Despite one colleague who continually brings up the tragedy, Jane is doing about as well as could be expected after such a horrible time in her youth. She’s mostly put it behind her. But the strangely similar events force her to think about that tragic year and what details she might have missed.
This is a suspenseful mystery, but the little moments around Latin, classics and teaching life are amazing. I, too, had a high school Latin class begin with students all memorizing the first declensions, without actually being told what that meant or what it was for. There was a bit of realistic shade at little Sextus and the Ecce Romani books (not to be confused with little Quintus of the Cambridge Latin books). In Jane’s memories, she and her two best friends in Latin class made their own celebrations of ancient holidays, which reminded me both of the classics students seeking ex stasis in The Secret History, and my own college parties celebrating Lupercalia and Dionysius, and this realistic grounding made me accept some of the wilder activities in this book.I teach English now, not Latin, but certain teaching colleagues always watching and ready to report an early dismissal or a loud class discussion is realistic, too. Throughout the book, there are these little realistic moments that made the dark mystery and generations of secrets feel more believable to me.
As Jane tries to work out what is happening to her students, notes and possessions from her own time as a student start to resurface. The time jumping worked well for me, because I already cared about Jane (spoiler: I was reading this on a break between classes, so basically I was invested in Jane from her first comment about the break between classes) and was already very interested in the mystery. Also, the vignettes in different times didn’t usually end on the typical thriller cliffhangers, instead, I really felt like Jane was reviewing her memories.
This book is a bit like The Secret History, with the classics students celebrating ancient rites, and a bit like Academy Girls, centering on old-girl teachers being unpleasantly reminded of their past secrets. There’s a real intensity to the friendships and alliances between young girls in The Lake of Dead Languages, and it’s treated seriously. There were a few moments when I was poised for someone to roll their eyes at girls being so emotional! so moody! so unstable! but the intensity of teenage emotions is treated like a fact of life in this school. As natural and unstoppable as the lake freezing in winter.
I went into The Lake of Dead Languages completely blind, so as Jane looked at her memories from her student days, the school’s legends, and the creepy events happening to her own students, I had no idea how these things would relate. Is history repeating itself? Is there truly a supernatural pull in the lake, something that causes generations of young girls to drown? Are the high-strung boarding school girls consciously reenacting Jane’s experiences? For their own emotional drama, or to manipulate their new teacher? Or are these just tragic accidents, and Jane’s just unable to stop reliving her own memories? And this was such a great way to discover this story.
There was one “twist” that I knew from the beginning of the book, so that when Dean Buehl said, oh, Jane, I thought you knew who that was? I kind of thought, yeah, why didn’t she know? Come on, Jane! The hint early on about Latin roots is perfectly done, and since Jane has some blanks and some denial about certain other aspects, I thought that Jane knew and just wasn’t mentioning it to the reader yet.
Overall, this was such a dramatic school mystery story, with classical themes and secrets throughout.