Doon Arbus’s debut novel is a kind of mystery—about who we become, what the absent leave us with, and why. Dense, visual, and true, this short book speaks volumes about the theater of the mind, and how the ensuing comedic drama we call life unfolds inside and outside our control. A marvelous new voice.

Hilton Als
Neil Selkirk

Doon Arbus

Doon Arbus is a writer. She was born in New York City and never really left. The author of six nonfiction books, she makes her debut as a novelist with The Caretaker. She is also a freelance journalist: in her reportage work, she frequently wrestles with the hidden codes in a subject’s spoken language, its hesitations and reversals, allowing what the speaker seeks to obscure to become the revelation. Two of her nonfiction books, co-authored with longtime collaborator Richard Avedon, integrate her text and his photographs to craft a collision of words and images into single labyrinthine narratives. The fact that she has been responsible for the care and dissemination of her mother’s photographic work for the past fifty years could suggest that a book entitled The Caretaker might relate to the author’s personal experience, but the protagonist of this novel is a most singular man and his story is his own.

cover image of the book The Caretaker

The Caretaker

Doon Arbus’s The Caretaker takes no prisoners as it explores the perils of devotion and the potentially lethal charisma of things. Following the death of an eccentric collector—author of Stuff, a seminal philosophical work on the art of accumulation—the fate of the privately endowed museum he cherished falls to a peripatetic stranger who had long been his fervent admirer. This peculiar institution (the Society for the Preservation of the Legacy of Dr. Charles Alexander Morgan) is dedicated to the annihilation of hierarchy: peerless antiquities commune happily with the ignored, the discarded, the undervalued, and the valueless. What transpires as the caretaker assumes dominion over this reliquary of voiceless objects and over its visitors is told in a wry and haunting manner, at once obsessive and matter-of-fact. The Caretaker, like the interplanetary crystal that is one of the museum’s treasures, is rare, glistening, and of a compacted inwardness.

Kafka or Henry James or Shirley Jackson may come to mind, and The Caretaker may conjure up various genres—parables, ghost stories, locked-room mysteries—but Doon Arbus draws her phosphorescent water from no other writer’s well.

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Doon Arbus’s debut novel is a kind of mystery—about who we become, what the absent leave us with, and why. Dense, visual, and true, this short book speaks volumes about the theater of the mind, and how the ensuing comedic drama we call life unfolds inside and outside our control. A marvelous new voice.

Hilton Als

This wryly funny, subversively philosophical book is brief—yet deep enough to contain humans and objects, love and death, memory and amnesia, oblivion and survival. It generates its own musical score: a phrase of Satie, a few notes of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and then the Beethoven sonata.

Francine Prose

The Caretaker is that very rare thing—a perfect book and unlike any other. Its world is small, compact and beautifully rendered. Reading it is in the best of ways like time travel, slightly fantastical and totally believable.

A.M. Homes

Arbus embraces a slightly awkward distance from her subjects, enough to leave the distinction between tragedy and comedy unsettled….Sprinkled with dry wit and flashes of intriguing observation, The Caretaker, for all its odd obsessions and unexpectedly dark ending, is a strangely charming little book.

Jake Casella Brookins, The Chicago Review of Books

Doon Arbus’s tale unfolds in an elegant, sometimes clever language that confounds time and creates an unsettling Gothic atmosphere….Throughout this fable, with disquieting humor, [she] invites us to ponder the often overrated weight of the past, the absurd importance accorded material things, and the dangers of overinterpretation.

Boris Senff, Le Tribune de Genève

A devoted admirer of a famous collector becomes the obsessive caretaker of his collection after his death….The caretaker…guides the museum visitors on a dialectic journey, immersing them, and us along with them, in his dizzying obsession with things. Doon Arbus…captures here the essence of the eccentric…through the lens of a disturbingly sinuous tale, which is not without a hint of mischievous irony.

Sean Rose, LH Le Magazine

The book opens and, one might say, the trap is set. We are captives, almost like Hansel and Gretel, lured on by this sweet treat of the winter literary season. To escape? Easier said than done….Shirley Jackson or Henry James come to mind…certainly due to the disquieting strangeness of the place, but also because from these pages a prose style emerges: gnarled sentences, images, similes. They unfurl here layer after layer “like someone dismembering an origami bird.’

Thomas Stelandre, Libération

The last page of this strange and beautiful meditation on time, loss, and the erosion of memory ends with “the exquisite neutrality of silence.” But Doon Arbus’ sentences…their magnitude, their precision, the cadence of their fall resonate in us for a long time and touch us the way we love to touch the things to which our soul is attached.

Camille Laurens, Le Monde des Livres

No one writes like this anymore. Each sentence is perfect and inevitable, written in a voice—both intimate and formal—that soothes and seduces. The book itself is a ghost, a carrier of stories, a text that holds and gives and shimmers with the lives of Things. Their “charisma.” When I finished the last page, I felt as though every word had been written just for me. I suspect many readers will experience that same glorious, unshakable connection to what is truly a masterpiece.

Christine Coulson, author of Metropolitan Stories: A Novel

A spell-binding, intricate and haunting tale of a world-renowned philosopher’s house museum filled with his collection of objects, and the mysterious man who becomes the museum’s caretaker.

Ulrich Baer, Think About It

There’s a ringing prescience to the book’s philosophy that feels precisely contemporary. Curation is an obligation that’s crept up on us. Isolation and ceaseless data have made caretakers of us all, shut-in keepers of playlists and timelines, quarantined arrangers of meaningless objects. As such, The Caretaker acts as an analogue telling of a virtual predicament.

The Cardiff Review

Arbus takes the narrative into a realm where hallucination, perhaps, a trace of the supernatural, just maybe, and obsession, undoubtedly, are the only keys to the riddle that she, no mean trickster, has conjured up. And it is made even more disorienting by Arbus’s distinctive voice, calm, wry, deadpan amid absurdity, and yet capable of lyricism at unexpected moments.

Andrew Stuttaford, New Criterion

An enigmatic and necessary book.


Taking cues from tales by Kafka and Robert Walser, Arbus pulls off an unnerving feat of contemporary postmodernism. A sly debut novel.

Publishers Weekly

For all its wit, The Caretaker is a quite unsettling study of obsession and madness that gradually creeps up on you and makes you complicit with the caretaker at the expense of his more bloodless antagonists because he at least has passion and the courage of his convictions. When I came to the end—which, like all perfect endings, is both surprising and inevitable—and was liberated from this closed, claustrophobic world, I wasn’t quite ready for it. The novel has a grip and once it lets you go, an imprint remains which leaves you with a slightly different gaze on the world around you.

James Marsh (director of Man on Wire and The Theory of Everything)
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