Plot Junkie: Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night and The Glass of Time

These were both so good, that I’m having trouble being done with them. It is just possible that I’m going to go back and reread ’em both in a week or so. (I’ll let you know, and probably have more to say about them, if that happens.)

Now, I’m relatively familiar with the neo-Victorian genre. Possession is my favorite book, I’ve read it at least 15 times, likely more. I love The Crimson Petal and the White, and intend to reread it as soon as Mount TBR is a little less daunting. Sarah Waters will have space in my bookshelf as long as I have a bookshelf. I just finished Rustication and loved it. I’ve slogged through Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell four or five times, (though I have to admit a preference for The Ladies of Grace Adieu). Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler books comprise one of the few series that have made it through the last 15 years of bookshelf purges. I’ve returned to and given up on Anne Perry’s series so frequently that it’s practically a routine.  And I’m familiar with the originals as well–most of what I do is in the 19th century. I know the big hitters, I know the minor works. So I have very. strong. opinions. about what works and what doesn’t in a Victorian novel. I know and am picky about all of the structures and tropes that Cox is using, and holy mother, is he doing it well.

 “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.” So begins the “enthralling” (Booklist, starred review) and “ingenious” (Boston Globe) story of Edward Glyver, booklover, scholar, and murderer. A chance discovery convinces Glyver that greatness awaits him. His path to win back what is rightfully his leads him to Evenwood, one of England’s most enchanting country houses, and a woman who will become his obsession.” (review from the publisher’s website)

There’s something about a book with a first person narrator that is almost claustrophobic. The voice is just so insistent, constantly whispering in your ear, trying to convince you of a point of view and system of beliefs that may or may not be correct or accurate, but is all that this person can see. You, as the reader, are forced into another’s perspective. You can doubt their truth, you can doubt their sanity, but–if you want to know the story–you can’t get away. Edward Glyver, the protagonist and narrator of The Meaning of Night, is dreadful. He’s monomaniacal on the subject of his inheritance, he has no trouble using any and all–old friends, lovers, employers–to further his ends, he seems to have no limits at which he will stop to achieve his purpose.

And yet. Even as I was resisting his narrative voice (I disliked and distrusted him from the beginning, as was intended) I still couldn’t stop listening. The story is seriously captivating. Every time you think you have something figured out (or maybe just every time things are looking up) something happens and bam! everything you thought you knew, everything he thought he knew, turns out to have been just wrong enough to change everything.

This reminded me so much of The Count of Monte Cristo. If, you know, Dantes had been a little mad [edited to add: and who are we kidding? revenge is not really a life goal of the sane.] And now that I think about it, that might be on purpose– Glyver’s real name is Edward Dupont, sharing initials, as well as monomaniacal focus on revenge, with Edmond Dantes.

 

I tore through The Meaning of Night, loved it, but (contrary to how I generally feel about sequels) The Glass of Time was even better. You could  read it alone, and you’d be great for about 3/4 of the book, but then all of these allusions to things past start showing up and you’d be confused. So read them in order. While you might be able to predict a few things that otherwise would be a surprise, you need the first for the conclusion of this to have weight.

The author’s first novel, The Meaning of Night (2006), set in London in 1854, was told from the viewpoint of a scholar turned murderer, but this sequel, set some 20 years later, is narrated by an innocent, 19-year-old Esperanza Gorst. Orphaned as a child, she has been raised in relative luxury in Paris by her guardian and given an excellent education by her tutor. However, her world is upended when they inform her that she is to leave for England in two months, where she will be employed as a lady’s maid by the widowed Baroness Tansor on the vast estate of Evenwood. It is to be the first step in what they call the Great Task, but Esperanza’s ultimate goal will only be revealed to her in phases. Although she appears far too refined for her occupation, Esperanza is immediately embraced by the family, but Lady Tansor proves to be a difficult employer, given to hysterics due to her tragic past—the love of her life, the pretentious poet Phoebus Daunt, was murdered by an old friend. Great period atmosphere, a cunning plot, and an intelligent narrator make this one a special treat. (review from the publisher’s website) 

This book reminded me of so many of my favorites, but in a “doing the era well” way, not in a knock-off way.Anyway, it reminded me of Alcott’s Behind a Mask (probably primarily because I just finished reading it, but definite thematic similarities), so so much of  Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (as anyone slightly familiar with that book will be able to note from the above publisher’s review), reviewers on Amazon found similarities to Jane Eyre and several of Wilkie Collins’ novels.

Both of these are very highly recommended. They are absolutely the best books I’ve read in ages–these were walk-into-a-wall-while-reading books.

 

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