on September 4, 2006
The subtitle of "The Meaning of Night" is "A Confession". And the entire book is indeed a long, slow-moving confession, written in the first person by a 35-year-old man in 1854.
The book starts with a 2-page teaser in which the confessor describes how he killed a man, an unknown man he happened to encounter on the street. Why? Because the writer of this confession needed to ensure that he was indeed capable of killing before continuing with his plan of exacting revenge over "his enemy".
The confession then jumps back to the 1820's, with the writer slowly but surely describing the complicated set of circumstances, the conspiracies against him, that brought him to the killing of the random man in 1854. Then the story continues to its inevitable climax.
The early Victorian era in England provides the background for the story. Morals were different in this age, with the rich and powerful having a very different concept of what was right and wrong than the common people, or the people of Western society today for that matter. Even the "good" people in the story (there are a few) sometimes act in ways we find disappointing, even though they were acting morally by their standards.
This Victorian background and especially the different moral standards play an important role in the story, and one feels that the atmosphere described in the book is very authentic. It's just depressing that everyone seems to be a villain in one way or another, and conspiracies are rampant.
The writer of the confession and the complicated story with several conspiracies against him and his decision to wreak a terrible revenge on "his enemy" do not come across with such a high degree of believability. Especially the confessor's occasional expressions of remorse over the bad things he has done do not ring true. Or is this perhaps the author's intention? The confessor, in his desperate search for justice for himself, becomes just as evil and unjust as his despised enemy.
One interesting device used in "The Meaning of Night" is that it begins with an editor's foreword, and the book is full of footnotes and explanations penned by this editor. The fact that we know that this "editor" is fictitious does not reduce the effect. The reader will easily let him/herself be fooled into thinking that this must indeed be an authentic manuscript from 1854 because of the editor's many notes and footnotes.
This is a very well written book and very impressive, and I found it very enjoyable. My problem was finding it hard to identify with anyone in the story. The lack of morals or the difference in morals in the Victorian era were a barrier for me.
The publishers seem to have high hopes for this debut novel. If so, I'm glad to endorse their opinion of it and I share their expectations.
The story is framed as the account by a murderer of his quest for vengeance on the man who cheated him of his hopes and his rightful heritage. It is set in Victorian England, partly in seedy London, partly in the rural grandeur that surrounds the most venerable English aristocracy. This is a promising formula -- Sherlock Holmes and Dr Jekyll have never lost their fascination. However it takes skill to recreate the atmosphere convincingly in the 21st century, and Michael Cox, biographer and editor of the great ghost-story writer M R James, seems to me never to hit a wrong note. The narrative is tense and eventful, but it's all slightly tongue-in-cheek too (as James himself was), and rightly so. The manuscript purports to have come to light in Cambridge University Library, and there is a preface by a personage entitled the Professor of Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction at that seat of learning, together with footnotes as the story goes along. The Professor hints darkly at 'conscienceless brutality and explicit sexuality', but don't get your hopes too high if that's your kind of thing - what the Professor says is not wrong, but what you will find is not exactly what his phraseology might lead one to expect either.
The style of writing is very sure-footed in not overdoing the pastiche-Victorian idiom. It is kept at a nicely-judged level of suggestiveness, but you would never take it for 19th century writing. One incidental benefit of this is that when letters are quoted and Cox goes in for a more explicit attempt at reproducing the Victorian manner of expression the contrast is all the more effective. The plot is very carefully worked out too (Cox seems to have taken 30 years over it). All the threads are picked up, sometimes in surprising ways, and all the hints and leads genuinely lead to something and are not wasted or forgotten. The story-line is complex up to a point, but there is no attempt at bamboozling the reader, and there is a pleasant clarity about the narration that kept me interested and expectant throughout the 600 pages of the work.
I found it all very involving I must say - I really cared about the outcome, and the detail is very convincing as well, particularly, for me, the excruciating interview between the narrator and Lord Tansor. As reading for entertainment it is a pretty superior effort. If it took 30 years I don't suppose we can expect a lot more from Michael Cox, but if I see anything else bearing his name on the cover I am going to be prompt in buying it.
This is a wonderful, highly stylized work of historical fiction. Those with a penchant for Victorian literature will appreciate this book, as it is written in the style of the period with a great deal of thought given to detail. The book begins as a presentation to the reader by a University of Cambridge Professor of a manuscript discovered in the Cambridge library among some papers. As such, the professor has added many footnotes that serve to illuminate some of the historical and literary allusions and references interspersed throughout the book. This was a literary contrivance that I very much enjoyed, both as a history buff and avid bibliophile. The overall concept is really that of a book within a book.
The manuscript purports to be a confession of sorts, as it tells a story of friendship, betrayal, and revenge, revealing a secret that had a profound impact on those whose lives it touched. After reading just the first sentence, I was hooked, as the story begins with a cold-blooded murder. Set in Victorian England, the story is told by an Edward Glyver, who is seeking to avenge himself on Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, a childhood friend whom he met while they were students at Eton. While at Eton, a wrong was done to Edward that would mark him forevermore.
The book offers a myriad of interesting characters and relationships that shaped Edward Glyver. The book is also rife with intrigues, coincidences, and secrets that deliciously unfold bit by bit, drawing the reader into the spider web of deceit that surrounds Edward Glyver, deceits that he is discovering and trying to unravel. The forces of good and evil are at work here, but who is good and who is evil is left for the discerning reader to determine, although such a determination is not always so black and white.
Peppered with memorable characters, as well as a gripping plot, this is a well-written book that will keep the reader riveted to its pages as the plot thickens. While some of the plot is predictable, despite its twists and turns, I still found myself barely able to put the book down, so I can do nothing less than to highly recommend this immensely readable book.
on October 10, 2006
The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox is a book I didn't want to like. At nearly 700 pages, I was hoping that the first few chapters would not catch my interest so I could return it to the library. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, the book grabbed me and didn't let me loose until the last page. Edward Glyver, the narrator, begins his tale by confessing to the murder of a complete stranger and then tumbles the reader back through time to explain himself before propelling the reader forward again to the inevitable conclusion. The streets of Victorian London come alive under Cox's descriptions, and Evenwood, the country estate of Glyver's rival, is also beautifully described. The frequent footnotes by the "author" are an interesting addition along the lines of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, adding a note of realism to the fiction within. It's hard to know what it true within the story, because of Glyver's unstable character, but it's fascinating reading, and impossible to put down. It's a captivating mix of a Edgar Allen Poe mystery with Jane Austen dialogue. This is great literature at its best.
on October 20, 2006
Just read an article in the NYT that said sales are below expectations. That amazes and saddens me. This book is incredible. I do not read many books because I get bored with most of them. (Although I highly recommend The Madonnas of Leningrad.) I love this book and am going to be sorry it ends. Tell your friends to buy a copy--now! (I adore you, Michael Cox! Well done!)
on December 22, 2007
After I killed the red haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper...
So begins one of the most introspective mysteries that I've read this year. Set in Victorian England of the 1850's, we follow the story of Edward Glyver, a young man who is set on revenge -- and for reasons that are entirely believeable. Told through Glyver's eyes, from his childhood to the momentous decision to murder a stranger, it's a chilling account of the warping of a human soul. From a childhood filled with shadowy secrets, Edward's life is thrown into turmoil when he is accused of a theft during his days at Eton -- and he believes it is caused by none other than his roommate, Phoebus Daunt.
Phoebus is admired by all, a budding poet full of imaginitive fancies and with connections to Lord Tansor and the estate of Evenwood. As Edward faces adversity, Phoebus is as glorious as his name implies, becoming the darling of the Tansors, litarary London, and Edward seeks to learn his own identity and bring about Daunt's downfall.
Along the way, we meet the people of Edward's world. There is the army officer Willoughby de Grice, who is always supportive and companionable; Bella, the inhabitant of a fashionable brothel who Edward cares for but also can discard without a second thought; Mr Threngold, the lawyer that Edward works for, and then the estate of Evenwood, which starts to take on a personality of its own.
Most of all, it is a tale of lies and obsession, and one of the more interesting aspects is that it is up to the reader to decide what is the truth, or a lie, or a mixture of both. Because no one in this story is as they seem, especially Edward, who shifts identities and names as easily as we would put on a coat. While his actions are repellent, I found myself really caring about happens to Edward -- will he succeed in his quest for justice, albeit, his own vision of justice, or will it all come crashing down? It's this trail that makes the story work, and keeps it from turning into a trite tale of revenge -- after all, that's been a standard cliche in many a novel from the Victorian period.
Michael Cox's narrative may wander and drift off into different tangents, but that is half the charm of this story. His earlier writings have been about literature of the period, and it is these details that give plenty of life to the story, and I could feel myself wandering right along with him through the darker, murkier aspects of life of that time. Too, the writing is clear, and the voices distinct, and while it does slip close to being almost a shadow of Dickens or Collins, it doesn't quite go that far.
Instead, Cox happily makes this a paean in praise of what was known as the 'sensation' novel of the time, a story filled with mystery, close circumstances, and coincidences, and he makes it work. While it does get annoying at time with the footnotes supplied by a fictional editor, it's also a very satisfying read for anyone not too afraid to take it on.
This novel isn't going to appeal for everyone. It's densely written with quite a few characters and subplots, and the more that the reader knows about literature and life in Victorian London, the better. It's filled with obscure references to authors that have become forgotten, plenty of Latin prefaces, and the trivialities of nineteenth century life.
However, it's all of these little details that makes this novel so good. While the novel does start off to a slow crawl, and is very densely written, by the last hundred pages, I couldn't read quickly enough. Despite Edward's heinous activities -- betrayal, murder, opium eating, constant fornication to relieve stress and the like -- the character raises enough questions about our own morality to prevent us from judging him too harshly. After all, who hasn't dreamt of getting even with someone who has wronged us?
Summing up, this was an excellent read, best savoured on a chilly night, without too many interruptions. While it does take quite a bit of effort to get through, it's worth every step of the way. Fans of the novels of Dickens and Wilkie Collins will enjoy the more delicate nuances of the story, and so too will the readers of Sarah Water's _Fingersmith_ and A.S. Byatt's _Possession._
The paperback edition has a discussion with the author in the back, along with a set of questions for reader's circles. The note on the back cover hints that there might be a sequel as well.
Five stars. Highly recommended.
Have you ever read a novel that was so well written that you continued to read it even when you would have liked to put it down? That's where I found myself with "The Meaning of Night" by Michael Cox. This author has an incredible talent for conveying atmosphere, drama and character development. My problem came during those times when I felt the novel proceeded so slowly that it bordered on boredom for me.
Edward Glyver (just one of his names) was a completely fascinating character in the beginning of this novel because of his complete lack of remorse for what he had done. He was portrayed initially as being totally amoral, blinded to everything except achieving his goal. As the story went along, he did begin to show remorse for one incident in particular, but felt himself completely justified for every other unscrupulous thing. The major grievance he felt had been done to him made him rationalize that nothing he could do in retaliation would be monstrous enough to count act that. I began to lose the sympathy I had originally felt for this character when the author was not able to convince me that everything Glyver felt had happened had been an intentional slight or done to him purposefully.
The setting of this novel in the Victorian era means that there was a richness to the language which is not easily mastered, yet Michael Cox managed to keep this "confession" set very firmly within the language, social strictures, and physical parameters of Victorian England. This is an intense reading experience which takes much attention and commitment to do it justice. I did continue on reading to the ending to find out just what price Glyver would have to pay for his first completely random act of violence. I'm glad I read the book and stand in awe of the writing abilities of Michael Cox.
on September 22, 2006
It should not take a novelette to convince other readers that this book is worth their time. If you like to feel totally immersed in a different time and place, if 700-plus pages don't scare you off, if you possess a love of learning, and if you enjoy a story that involves you emotionally, then just get "The Meaning of Night" and read it already!
Position and education are everything in Victorian London, a world defined by the refinements of class; a man's fortune can be made by the right association or destroyed by unsavory circumstances. When the protagonist, Edward Glyver, begins this tale with the confession of a murder, he sets in motion the completion of a long quest to remedy a disservice done to him in years before. Revealing the past that has brought him to this point of infamy, Glyver revisits his earliest years and life as a student at Eton, where he meets the enigmatic Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, who plans to make his mark on the world through successful literary endeavors. Were Daunt of a different nature, Glyver's future might have been otherwise. Unfortunately, Daunt's perfidy leads to Edward's expulsion from Eton and a lifelong obsession with the revenge of his vanquished dreams.
Part narrative, part confessional, the novel examines the rigid constructs of Victorian mores and the importance of position in a carefully structured society. Throughout, Daunt and Glyver are engaged in an epic battle waged beyond the ken of those around them, one enjoined all those years ago at Eton, fueling a competition that can only end in tragedy for one of them. Which gentleman that shall be remains in question in this struggle of Victorian sensibilities and Dickensian detail: "An advantage, however small, is everything to the resourceful man." It is easy to imagine Glyver's outrage or Daunt's sly arrogance, their gentlemen's apparel a fitting disguise for the roiling emotions of their mutual enmity.
The language of time and place is perfect, the oddments of Victorian sentiment framing a relationship defined by untruths, exaggerations and the particular eccentricities of an era that renders judgment of a man though his wealth and position. A grand theme of betrayal and revenge plays out on a nineteenth century stage, a buried secret at the core of all. Edward's familiarity with the darker side of the city serves him well in his constant pursuit of redress; meanwhile, Daunt blazes brilliantly through a world that embraces his talent and accomplishments, a seemingly unbeatable adversary. The streets of London filled with men of wealth and a teeming criminal underbelly, Cox has fashioned a superbly literate tale of the treachery wrought by greed, years of duplicity and the ultimate collision of truth and falsehood. Luan Gaines/2006.
The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox is one of the more unique books I have read in 2006. On the one hand I was mindful of Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue in pacing and atmosphere and yet the language and dialog is certainly contemporary. Maybe its the "in the eye of the beholder" thing. At any rate I found the entire novel to be captivating, gripping and worthwhile of my time to read. I was hard pressed to put the book down and managed to read it in almost record time.
The premise of the book isn't that original but Cox does manage a clever twist here and there. Edward Glyver is certain that Phoebus Daunt (sounds evil doesn't it) is the source of all his woes; all his misfortunes. Much of the book deals with this tension between Glyver and his nemesis. Richly textured with wonderful characters (Emily, Daunt, and Glyver himself), and the atmosphere of Victorian England (foggy nights and lots of shadows) means that The Meaning of Night is sure to entertain the patient reader.
As other reviewers have pointed out, it is a test of reason to find in Edward Glyver a sympathetic character especially when at the beginning of the book he kills an absolutely innocent man just see if he could do it....all in preparing to deal with Daunt. As if this were all, he then goes to Quinn's for an oyster dinner. Though set in Victorian England, this behavior smacks of the type of cold blooded behavior we've become used to in our contemporary literature. Of course, Jack the Ripper manages to shock even us moderns.
The Meaning of the Night is a terrific read and in the end all is made clear. Check it out from your local public library if you don't want to buy it. Either way....get your hands on it and read it.