Book Review: The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

The Tenth Muse…

About the Book:

A brilliant and gripping novel about a young woman’s gift for mathematics, and the secret of her past bound up in World War II.

The first thing I remember being said of me with any consistency was that I was intelligent – and I recognized even then that it was a comment levelled at me with as much disapproval as admiration. Still, I never tried to hide or suppress my mind as some girls do, and thank god, because that would have been the beginning of the end.

From childhood, Katherine knows she is different, and that her parents are not who they seem to be. But in becoming a mathematician, she faces the most human of problems – who is she? What is the cost of love, and what is the cost of ambition?

On her quest to conquer the Riemann Hypothesis, the greatest unsolved mathematical problem of her time, she turns to a theorem with a mysterious history that holds both the lock and key to her identity, and to secrets long buried during World War II. Forced to confront some of the biggest events of the twentieth century and rethink everything she knows of herself, Katherine strives to take her place in the world of higher mathematics, reclaiming the voices of the women who came before her whose love of the language of numbers connects them across generations.

THE TENTH MUSE is a brilliant, involving novel asking questions about who gets to tell the story of intellectual endeavour, and those who lost everything during World War II.

My Thoughts:

‘All my life I’ve been told to let go as gracefully as possible. What’s worse, after all, than a hungry woman, greedy for all that isn’t meant to be hers? Still, I resist. In the end we relinquish everything: I think I’ll hold on, while I can.’

The Tenth Muse is everything I ever want in a novel: total immersion into the story and highly intellectual without being difficult to read. It’s historical fiction but doesn’t restrict itself to one era or one topic of focus. The author, Catherine Chung, has a degree in mathematics, but she also has a background in writing and editing, the merging of these two disciplines resulting in a novel that is simply put: brilliant. She conveys the beauty of the mathematics in a way that even the least numerically proficient amongst us can appreciate.

‘The problem I’d solved had drawn me in as only a mathematical problem could: bounded, defined, it was a puzzle to break your head over until a solution appeared – everything leading up to it a struggle, but the answer itself effortless as a drawn breath.’
‘Math had always seemed miraculous to me because of the beauty it revealed underlying nature, because of the deep sense of rightness that came over me when I understood something all the way through, as if for a moment I’d merged with the grace I only ever caught glimpses of.’

The Tenth Muse is a novel about higher mathematics within the context of history and the difficulties women had with being admitted into this exclusive universe. Katherine, the main character, is also half-Japanese, so her barriers are two-fold.

‘The first time I visited Harvard was in 1963. I had just started graduate school nearby at MIT, and when I stood in front of the hallowed buildings of Harvard grown over with ivy, I thought – What beautiful places men have built for each other with the intention of keeping women out. And my joy at being there was diminished by knowing that this was a place that was meant in fact to exclude me.’

Maths, sexism, and racism are not the only themes explored. The author digs even deeper into history and I felt that the way she brought all of her different themes together was quite visionary. When Katherine discovers that her parentage is not at all what she has been led to believe for her entire life, she embarks on a pilgrimage to Germany, combining a post graduate opportunity at the University of Bonn with a quest to discover who she might really be. This is where the novel gets into quite sensitive terrain, because this is Germany in the 1960s, post WWII, post Nazism. The author skilfully brings the atmosphere of Germany within this era to life, in all of its beauty and all of its ugliness.

‘I fell a bit in love: I told myself this was the country that had produced Bach and Beethoven, Gauss and Einstein, Rilke and Arendt. The university counted Nietzsche and Marx as alumni. But of course the same country had also burned books in the street, murdered poets and thinkers and children. And it was a fact that the University of Bonn, which had welcomed me with open arms, had been used as a Nazi institution during World War II. Everywhere I went I was reminded that we were surrounded by the vestiges of war.’
‘Everyone who remains benefited from the exiles and murders of Jews, don’t you see? We all did, we citizens of this country, whether we wrung our hands and regretted what was happening or openly celebrated when they were cast out of their jobs. We took whatever came our way and pretended it was ours to have by right.’

The Tenth Muse is not an overly thick novel, but it packs a lot into its pages and it does so without ever wandering off plot or appearing too condensed. It’s told in a reflective manner, almost memoir in style. Well timed, well crafted, and well written. This is one novel that I recommend for readers of all tastes. It truly is a brilliant read with so much depth and validity, a sensitively wrought, yet brutal examination of humanity at its worst.


Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a copy of The Tenth Muse for review.

About the Author:

Catherine Chung was born in Evanston, Illinois, and grew up in New York, New Jersey, and Michigan. She studied mathematics at the University of Chicago and received her MFA from Cornell. She is one of Granta’s New Voices, and lives in New York City.

The Tenth Muse
Published by Hachette Australia
Released on 11th June 2019 (eBook 6th June)

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s