The young son of an Albanian mother is discovered in Albania by his Scottish father, Lord Sane, who brings him back to a deteriorating manse in Scotland and schools him for a new life as his heir. Ali, the boy, apparently tainted by the Sane family curse, soon begins his misadventures. A painful young love, a gruesome hanging, an escape by ship in the moonlight, the discovery of a young woman masquerading as a boy, ominous sleepwalking episodes, the periodic appearance of a bear, the arrival of a ghostly double, false imprisonment--all these events figure in Ali's story, which illustrate all the complications of a Gothic romance.
Author John Crowley presents Ali's story as the missing novel written by George Gordon, Lord Byron in 1816, creating a scenario in which Byron's missing manuscript is sold to finance Byron's involvement in European movements promoting Liberty and Freedom. Clear parallels exist between events in Ali's story and events in Byron's life, but Crowley also connects Bryon, through his manuscript, with the life of Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, Byron's estranged daughter.
In a third plot line, a web site designer, Alexandra Novak, known as "Smith," is working on a site devoted to women's science history. Georgiana, her client, purchases some papers found in a seaman's trunk which once belonged to Ada's son Byron, who ran away to sea. Georgiana shows Smith a single sheet of an unknown manuscript in Byron's handwriting, but there are many additional pages containing long columns of numbers, their importance unknown. Smith's attempts to discover the secret to the numbers, written by Ada, unfold simultaneously with Ali's story.
Crowley maintains his fine sense of where and when to change the focus from Ali to Ada to Smith in order to keep the tension and interest high, creating intriguing plot lines which intersect and gradually reveal parallels in the lives of the characters. Life, love, betrayal, alienation, separation and reconciliation are themes pervading all the subplots, and the coincidences and moments of revelation, common to all romantic novels, keep the reader intrigued.
There is no real suspense, however. Crowley begins the novel with an episode from Ali's life, making it obvious from the beginning that Byron's novel IS discovered. The biographies of Bryon and Ada are well documented, and no suspense evolves from new discoveries. The episodes in Ali's life are similar to those in many other Gothic romances, not unique. Still, I found the novel to be a delightful read--a terrific escape into romanticism, possibly the most classically romantic novel in recent years. n Mary Whipple