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Island of the Mad

A Novel

List Price: $16.95

September 12, 2017 | Paperback | 5.75 x 8.75, 400 Pages | ISBN 9781640090088
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Meticulously blending the concerns of her poetics into an exciting and mysterious work of fiction, Island of Mad is the daring new novel by celebrated poet and novelist Laurie Sheck. This stunning lyrical mix of fact and fiction loosens the boundaries between past and present as it offers an intimate look into the peculiar life of a man named Ambrose A. and those he comes to know as his story unfolds.

Orphaned and hunchbacked since childhood, Ambrose has lived a reclusive life until one day he’s suddenly confronted with an odd request: that he travel to Venice in search of a lost notebook he can know nothing about. Though aware of the seeming absurdity of the task, he embarks on his mission. Once there, he is visited by the ethereal Frieda, a young woman executed as a murderess a century before who now guides him through the city and into the devastating Venetian plague of 1557.

His search eventually leads him through the Venetian lagoon to the small island of San Servolo, also known as the Island of the Mad, where rummaging through a drawer in the old hospital, he discovers a notebook containing the letters and notes of two of the island’s former inhabitants — a woman suffering from a rare genetic illness which causes the afflicted to die of sleeplessness, and a man who experiences epileptic seizures. As the sleepless woman’s eye-sight fails, she wants only one thing — that her epileptic friend read to her from Dostoevsky’s great novel The Idiot, a book she loves but can no longer read.

LAURIE SHECK is the author of A Monster’s Notes, a re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her five books of poems include Captivity and The Willow Grove, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.A recipient of awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has also been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She is a member of the graduate faculty at the New School and lives in New York City.


“A poetic meditation on Russian literature, bubonic plague, Venice, and the multiverse… [T]here’s a rhythmic force to Sheck’s repeated tropes…” —Kirkus

“[P]oet and poetic novelist Sheck draws on classic works […] to create an exquisitely intricate and moving literary pastiche…  In concise, haunting, inquisitive, and incantatory passages, Sheck imaginatively and compassionately explores the mysteries of the body and mind, of brokenness and aloneness, while celebrating language as a lifeline across pain, time, and space.”—Booklist

“Laurie Sheck is a true American original, and Island of the Mad is a remarkable hybrid text that at once pushes the boundaries of literary fiction and poetry and speaks to the reader with tremendous insight and compassion about human suffering and survival.  At once wise and thrilling, beautiful and challenging, mysterious and inviting, Sheck’s work cuts to the heart of all that is most challenging and wondrous about human experience. To read Island of the Mad  is to have “felt the world touch” us – as the narrator puts it –  “with its strange, unpredictable hand.” And what else could we want of literature but this?” —Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye

“Laurie Sheck’s Island of the Mad is nothing short of brilliant. Its hybrid form hovers between poetry and fiction; grounded in a deep understanding of the past it is also perfectly contemporary in its idioms and concerns. This is ambitious, cutting edge work, both intimate and daringly literary at once. Laurie Sheck is an American Original.” —Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift

“Laurie Sheck’s Island of the Mad plunges into language like a silken dagger, removing us to plague years and haunted mysteries that might just remind us of contemporary lives and dreams.  An amazing, exhilarating read that creates its own maze and accompanies the reader deeper and deeper into a miraculous world.”—Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Quiet Dell and Machine Dreams

“Laurie Sheck is a thrilling, original writer whose work has only gotten more ambitious and layered with each successive book.  Her latest project, an unfolding trilogy, was launched by the remarkable and much-praised A Monster’s Notes, a hybrid, ramifying reckoning with Frankenstein, romanticism, and much else.  Her current book, Island of the Mad, brings us to yet another stunning, unpredictable zone.  An ambitious, significant work is unfolding before us: volume three, invoking the filmmaker R. W. Fassbinder, will conclude this writer’s unusual orchestration of philosophical inquiry, narrative, archival intuition, and poetic brio.”—Maureen N. McLane, National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Award for Excellence in Book Reviewing and author of My Poets

“Compelling, mysterious and hard to shake…utterly one of a kind.”—Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“ Laurie Sheck is one of the most gifted and original writers at work today; I don’t know of another who so deftly combines the poet’s lyricism, the novelist’s grasp of character and suspense, and the scholar’s love of historical detail.  Her previous and path-breaking book, A Monster’s Notes, was unlike anything I’d ever read, haunting and exhilarating.  Her latest, the dream-like and mysterious Island of the Mad, is, if anything, even more powerful and moving—and is a book that will be treasured and taught for many years to come.” —James Shapiro, author of The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 & winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

“The entire time, [the book] took my breath away… With a simple sentence, Sheck brings into sharp relief concepts that I’ve never thought to question or contemplate… sland of the Mad is gorgeously written and full of moments of deep introspection and speculation. Dark, mysterious, poetic and utterly confounding. To read it is to feel one is attempting to swim through muddied waters – muddied waters that contain necessary truths. Waters that, once you emerge from the other side, you are grateful for having been allowed entrance into them.”—The PostScript

“If there is one thing to take away from the powerful collage of allusions, imagery, and lyricism in Laurie Sheck’s Island of the Mad, it is the fundamental importance of human connection. The book foregrounds longed-for and missed connections, half-hearted and tenuous ones, imagined ones, and so many others. As the novel illustrates, even as life takes its unexpected and painful turns, scarring us, stripping off parts of who we are, we persist in our search for connections, which nourish us at moments of greatest need . . . Indeed, there is no better evidence for art’s capacity to foster connections than Sheck’s own warm and lyrical narrative.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

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