I was intending to read this book when it was first published four years ago, but for some reason I didn’t and forgot all about it until I noticed it in the library recently. I’m glad I finally got round to it, even if I’m late as usual!
The plot will be a familiar one to anyone who has read a lot of Victorian fiction – it’s a story of love, betrayal and deceit, revolving around a lost inheritance and a childhood rivalry. A vast country estate, a beautiful, mysterious heroine, and the dark, foggy streets of 19th century London combine to make this a clever imitation of the Victorian sensation novel.
In a similar way to The Unburied which I reviewed earlier this month, the book is presented as a genuine 19th century manuscript, complete with an ‘Editor’s Preface’ and numerous footnotes. The use of footnotes, which seemed to appear on almost every page, reminded me of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. However, whereas in Jonathan Strange the footnotes really added something to the story, providing us with fascinating anecdotes about the history of magic, in The Meaning of Night they served very little purpose – other than to give the book a scholarly feel. Overall though, this was one of the best written of all the novels of this type that I’ve read so far and I was impressed by the author’s use of language and writing style to make this feel like an authentic 19th century novel.
The narrator, Edward Glyver, is really quite a horrible person. In the first chapter – in fact, in the first sentence (so this is not a spoiler) – he confesses to murder:
“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.”
He also cheats on the woman who loves him, develops an obsession with his enemy, Phoebus Rainsford Daunt – and becomes increasingly dependent on opium, making him an unreliable narrator at times. Is he a character deserving of our sympathy, then? Definitely not – and yet, I was rooting for him throughout the story, wanting him to right the wrongs that had been done to him, which is a testament to Michael Cox’s writing skills.
The only thing that really disappointed me about this book was the ending. I can’t say too much about it without spoiling the story for you, but the ending left me feeling dissatisfied – I had been hoping for a few more plot twists.
This book won’t be to everyone’s taste – if you simply don’t like intricately plotted Victorian or Victorian-style novels you’ll want to avoid this one. However, fans of Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins will probably enjoy this book, as they were clearly two of Michael Cox’s influences (many of the characters have Dickensian names such as Phoebus Daunt, Fordyce Jukes and Josiah Pluckrose). It should also appeal to readers of Sarah Waters, Charles Palliser or other writers of neo-Victorian fiction. In particular, I found it very similar to Palliser’s The Quincunx, though slightly less complex and intellectually demanding.
Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 608/Publisher: John Murray/Year: 2006/Source: Library book