The Stonehenge Letters is the second novel from Harry Karlinsky, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, and it’s very much a companion to his first, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects. That earlier novel, a speculative blend of fact and fiction, was presented as a scholarly exploration of the theories of Thomas Darwin, the supposed eleventh child of Charles Darwin, and was constructed out of old texts, letters, photos, and other exhibits.
Karlinsky employs a similar format for his follow-up, which follows a retired psychiatrist absorbed with trying to determine why Sigmund Freud never received a Nobel Prize. As he pursues that line of inquiry, he uncovers a hidden history. It seems that in his will, Alfred Nobel established a further prize, open only to Nobel laureates, to be bestowed upon the person who could best “solve the mystery of Stonehenge.”
Candidates are sent invitations to participate, resulting in letters from an all-star lineup of period intellectuals: Ivan Pavlov, Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt, and Marie Curie. None of their efforts is entirely satisfying to the jury (in attempting to understand Curie’s reply – which involves an early application of radiocarbon dating – they are forced to employ the services of Albert Einstein). However, each respondent is, as the saying goes, “on to something.”
The whole novel is a shaggy-dog story, the final point of which can be seen as provocative and profound or deflating and tongue-in-cheek. It turns out that imaginative genius and scientific progress are very closely allied. To return to the question that got everything rolling, perhaps this was the problem the Nobel committees had with Freud: he was too far ahead of his time.
One doesn’t read The Stonehenge Letters – which mimics the form of a clinical report or study, complete with appendices and biographical notes – for the quality of its writing, its drama, or its narrative pulse. Instead, what one finds is a light scientific fantasy in a minor key, and a curious entertainment about the mysteries of creation.