This book exists in layers of story and levels of meaning like nearly no other book I have read. It has been compared to Nabokov, Poe, Arthurian legend, and Calvino - draw your own conclusions -- but one thing I know: Mr. Hansen's prose is lucid, calm, and surprising; the writing will draw you in.
The reader sinks into Hansen's narrative and follows along as the elderly Dr, Uyterhoven leaves his comunity and his wife to provide medical services in the Crimean War. The community gathers to hear the letters he sends from abroad -- letters he has written to entertain them, that apparently his boat to Crimea took a terrible turn and he has landed on an island ruled by games -- and thus by chance.
But the dispatches are also this man's love letter to his wife, his way of helping her and their community after a period of loss and grief, ruminations on the role of faith in an extraordinary life -- and ultimately his way of both being useful and saying goodbye. Our book club, which has met for 14 years now, found much to wonder at and discuss in this book. We read it because it was pressed on us -- "you have to read this book!," -- and in the dozens of books we have read since, only a very few come near to The Chess Garden in grace, meaning, and readability. It's not a fast read -- but it offers gentle and amazing rewards. It is dense. And it is worth it.
My main piece of advice to anyone reading it would be -- read it with someone else; because there will definitely be times when you think, "Wth? What just happened?" It's very helpful to have someone to talk with.
"What matters won't change. What changes don't matter," a rogue pawn from a chess game in The Chess Garden.