A book with so many twists, turns, surprises and teases is very
difficult to review without spoiling it for other readers, but I will try not
to give too much away.
I very rarely read historical fiction, a recent exception was
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
, to which some people have compared
this book. Both books are enormous, feature main characters with obsessive
passions for book collections, and are written with a painstaking attention to
historical detail. The comparison only goes so far, as The Meaning of Night is
very much a realistic novel without the magical aspects of Jonathan Strange.
Another comparison which has been made is with Charles Dickens. Again
this could be a result of the epic scale of this book, but also of the
contemporary time frame. The difference is that, although not as explicitly
salacious as, for example, The Vesuvius Club, there are still details in this
book which could never have been published in Dickens' time.
Perhaps the most interesting comparison I have heard is with the
Sherlock Holmes stories. Interesting because, although set slightly earlier
than the Sherlock Holmes stories, the main character does indeed work in the
capacity as a private investigator and have a fondness for opium and laudanum,
but this is only peripheral to the main plot. However, he is doing the work
that a real modern private investigator would do - getting evidence for divorce
cases for example - rather than the murder-mystery work of traditional
fictional detectives. Having said that, in P. Rainsford Daunt there is a
recognisable Moriarty figure, and at times I was wondering if his actions and
influence were real or just paranoia on the part of the Edward Glyver
As a non-reader of historical fiction I was a little apprehensive
about reading this book, but it does start with a bang and quickly follows that
up with tantalising hints of surprises to come. The greatest achievement of the
book is how quickly it makes the reader sympathetic towards a character who is
first introduced in the act of murdering an innocent man for no good reason.
Only by the end of the book do we learn the full motives and pressure on Edward
Glyver, but by then he has been long forgiven.
Various plot turns depend on events which appear at first to be
extremely convenient and unlikely coincidences - a bit like the plot devices in
Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native
. At first I was mildly irritated by
these, but soon found myself mentally apologising to the author when there
turned out to be perfectly good reasons for these. I took this as a form of
authorial teasing: appearing to be taking the easy way out, and then showing
that there had actually been a lot of work to make it look so easy.
The book is written in the first person as a contemporary account of
affairs, using the device of a fictional editor who has recently found the
manuscript and has added his own footnotes of explanation. It is a device often
used in Sherlock Holmes pastiches and can be obtrusive. In this case it is
handled well, allowing the author to write the main text using his obviously
extensive knowledge of Victoriana but giving an excuse for footnotes to explain
the less familiar terms.
Nearly everything I would like to say about this book would involve
giving away something, and a great deal of the enjoyment of the story is in
experiencing the sudden changes of direction without warning, right the way up
to the very brave ending. If you want to know what that ending is and why it is
so brave you will have to read it yourself, but you are unlikely to regret
The Meaning of Night