Tuesday, 30 January 2007

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

It was all in aid of my course and seeing as I finished it in 3 days, I thought I'd tell all the people who (don't) read my blog what I thought about it.

At over 600 pages long and available only in hardback, The Meaning of Night stands apart from the other books on my shelf. Not only because it is something I would never choose to pick up myself, but because it simply doesn't fit on my book shelf. It is huge and possibly the biggest novel I've ever read (unless you count Polo by Jilly Cooper...which most people wouldn't. Maybe I should of kept that one quiet. Eek).

Given that there has been an influx of historical fiction being published recently, this book was in danger of blending into the background and drowning in a sea of its own kind. Something had to set it apart for me. On learning it was not only a mystery thriller of gargantuan proportions but also set in the Victorian period, I groaned and could only envisage what was to come...Dicken's cobbled London streets, a Jack-the-Ripper style murder, a bit of Sherlock Holmes 'who-dunnit? Oh hosh-tosh it was his daughter because he wouldn't let her marry her working class fiance's goat...' and so on. For the first few pages, I wasn't disappointed. An innocent man is murdered in the back streets London on a foggy night and the killer slopes away back into the dark undisturbed 'to Quinns for an oyster supper'. Ladies and Gentlemen, enter Edward Glapthorn, I mean Glyver, a motherless psychopath - someone go and fetch Dr Freud.

The protagonist, Edward Glyver, is unlikable, unreliable (if you take the editor's word for it) and a hypocrite. He commits the crimes, both violent and literary, that he seeks to punish other people for. On quoting a published article by his ex-Eton school mate Phoebus Daunt, he muses afterwards...

He comes the litterateur too much - seeing significance where none existed, making much of nothing, dramatizing the mundane: the usual faults of a professional scribbler. This is memory scrubbed and dressed up for public consumption. (p.107)

Sound familiar? It will do. Glyver, obsessed with both himself and his enemy, Phoebus Daunt, seeks revenge for his expulsion from Eton and not reaching his scholarly potential as a result. The narrative is littered with literary name-drops, quotes and passages that, contrary to my expectations, did not make the book inaccessible due to the thorough footnotes accompanying them, but enhanced the view that Glyver is a self deluded, biased show off with a fragile state of mind. Less Opium please...more Prozac.

The story itself is engaging and despite the books length, manages to keep you reading until the end. It was the first book in a long time which compelled me to read not only the end acknowledgements by the author (the book was 30 years in the making) but to then go back to the beginning and re-read the preface, at which point you are able to see the real cleverness of the book and understand exactly what it is you have been reading.

On the other hand, the story is at times long winded; descriptions of Edward's surroundings are relayed with intrinsic detail and I found myself skipping and skim reading some parts, only to re-enter the tale and realise I hadn't missed anything of great importance in between. The language and terms were lifted straight out of the Victorian period, but at times this seemed a little contrived and in parts, where modern language would have sufficed, the word's archaic sister was used instead. Footnotes are a useful addition, but they can disrupt the flow of an otherwise well formed novel. Furthermore, some of the action such as the (very) frequent deaths of the people involved, are frequent and predictable. At times I had a feeling of inevitability about the plot, much like you get when watching a film...a 'Dont go back into the house you idiot' type thing. It is not a cheery novel, at times its bleakness is mind consuming. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but there are only so many ways someone can describe the grief felt following the violent, unexpected deaths and, in a 600 page novel I think The Meaning of Night reached its limit before the end.

Saying that, The Meaning of Night kept me hooked until it's conclusion which I reached at 2.30am this morning. There are enough plot twists to keep you interested and enough nods in the direction of high culture and literature (all explained by footnotes) for everyone, scholars, 'cunnys' or 'family men', to understand. It is just a shame that by the end of the book, you have to go back to the beginning to remember how it all started.

That was my opinion on it. Here's some varying ones for you to read...or alternatively, buy it, read it, and make your own opinion up...

  • 'The Meaning of Night is by no means a sensational Victorian pastiche. It is substandard, ersatz hokum. The only way to stay the course of its 600 pages is to treat the over-egged writing as tenaciously tongue-in-cheek.' Telegraph
  • This is a story that, in summary, stretches plausibility: of revenges that involve staggering injustices and dastardly plots requited with equal violence. As a novel of sensation, it is as outrageous in its use of coincidence and surprise as any book by Wilkie Collins or Dickens. Cox is free to get away with all this because he is playing by the rules of another time and its favourite fictions. The Independent
  • With a story that includes murder, assault, blackmail, treachery and forbidden passion, and a plot with a dizzying amount of twists and turns, The Meaning of Night is a fast and compelling read despite its length. It is also a largely forgettable one. Sydney Morning Herald

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