According to Katherine, the narrator of Catherine Chung’s new novel, the 10th muse was the youngest of the semidivine sisters and chose to tell her own stories rather than be a source of inspiration for men. Because of this, the 10th muse was stripped of her immortality. A symbol of female creativity and empowerment, her bold spirit hovers over The Tenth Muse, a sweeping tale of identity, gender and genius.
Katherine was raised in a small Midwestern town as the daughter of a Chinese immigrant and a white American veteran of World War II. Already ostracized because of her mixed parentage, Katherine is further scorned by her classmates after her mother abandons the family. Though Katherine is clearly a gifted math student, her teachers don’t acknowledge her abilities, and on the cusp of college graduation, she is brutally tricked by a classmate who claims her work as his own. At the same time, her father’s plans to remarry force Katherine to uncover the tangled truth behind her parents’ relationship.
Katherine establishes herself in the male-dominated world of advanced mathematics and becomes involved with a charismatic older professor, Peter Hall. But as a woman, she has trouble getting recognized for her accomplishments, and much to Peter’s dismay, she accepts a fellowship in Germany. Pursuing an unsolved mathematical hypothesis draws Katherine further into the mystery of her lineage, and in Bonn, Germany, she uncovers a theorem that promises to lead her closer to the truth. Other characters’ complicated stories of duplicity, innocence and sacrifice are echoed in Katherine’s experiences of stolen research and betrayed trust. Though she finds some answers and even some remaining family in Germany, she also accepts that life has fewer tidy endings than any mathematical formula.
Similar to the way she used Korean folk tales in her first novel, Forgotten Country, Chung uses the history and language of mathematics in The Tenth Muse to explore how the past is inextricably tied to the present. Her writing has a beautiful clarity, and the novel has an epic feel, sweeping between decades and continents without ever losing sight of the human lives at stake. This is a timely story about a woman searching for her identity in an inhospitable environment and emerging scarred but triumphant.