“The Tenth Muse” by Catherine Chung


Thanks to Little Brown and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review. 

This book made me feel interested in and enthused about Maths which is really saying a lot. I know a lot of people say they hate Maths but I don’t, I just really, really struggle to understand it. A friend of mine who is now a Professor of Mathematics once told me to think of it like a language. Little did he know that I am crap at languages too.

Anyway, this book is something rather special. I was worried that it was going to be one of those awfully clever books that makes me feel thick, but I was pleasantly surprised (and relieved!). 

The main character, Katherine, looks back on her life and the barriers she has faced. Growing up in post-war Michigan, she was abandoned in childhood by her Chinese mother and raised by her white American father. As Katherine’s story progresses, we learn that her family history is not quite so simple and she begins to gradually unlock long held secrets.   

Despite an interest and aptitude in Math and Science nurtured by her father, Katherine’s abilities are often ignored or downplayed by those she meets. We see the barriers related to both race and gender that Katherine faces in making a career in Mathematics academia, which even now is very much a “man’s world”.  

Katherine is determined to try and solve the Riemann Hypothesis, and this quest takes her through academic circles where she meets both friend and foe. Her quest also brings her on a journey deeper into her past and she meets those who will both help and hinder her quest. She travels to Germany to uncover secrets buried since World War 2 to try and find some of the answers she seeks both academic, and personal.  

It sounds trite but this is one of those “it’s not the destination but the journey” kind of books. Whether or not Katherine solves the Reinmann Hypothesis doesn’t really matter. What’s matters is the choices we make and the sacrifices we have to endure when we make those choices. I couldn’t always connect with Katherine on a personal level as my experiences are so completely different to hers and she made choices that I wouldn’t, but her experience as a woman, and the struggles she faces are sadly universal. There is a fair bit of Mathematics yes, but we get to see the beauty and philosophical links that Maths has to the natural order of things which I found really illuminating.   

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