I just finished this 800-page Victorian-era historical fiction novel, which took me about a month to read. I don’t mean to indicate it’s a bad book; part of the problem is that I haven’t felt like reading much in the last month. On the other had, if you’re in the middle of a great book you usually feel like reading it all the time.
I did enjoy the book, but it was a hard slog to get all the way through. Part of that is just the length of Victorian novels, and this one that is meant to imitate a Victorian novel.
The plot is a bit hard to describe, partially because there are lots of time jumps, back, forward, all over the place. The novel starts with this opening line:
“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.”
So the story begins with a murder, and I can say, without spoiling anything, that it also ends with a murder. Edward Glyver (one of his many names) is the main character, but the important thing to remember about the story is that everyone is hiding something. You can’t trust anyone in the book.
Over the course of many flashbacks Edward reveals his history. He grew up in the West Country with an author for a mother. He has a fairly unremarkable childhood but does manage to secure a scholarship spot at Eton, and a generous bequest from a friend of his mother’s allows him to make his way in the world. At Eton he meets someone named Phoebus Daunt, a real piece of work who gets Edward kicked out of school and ruins all of his chances to go to university. He swears revenge, and that sets the scene for the majority of the action of the book.
There are a lot of mysteries in this novel. Chiefly among them Edward’s uncertain parentage, but there are also mysterious blackmail notes, at least two other murders, a nosy downstairs neighbor, missing books, a treasure hunt of some kind, and lots of other false names and identities.
It was an incredibly detailed and obviously deeply researched book. It made a lot of news when the book first came out because Michael Cox received a massive advance, considering the fact that it was a debut novel. An interesting tactic Cox used was to treat the novel like a found work, or a false document. (Like the Blair Witch Project, part of the fun is believing that it’s a real story). This often happened in actual Victorian and late-Victorian novels, where the work was claimed to have been found in a drawer or behind a bookshelf or something. It blurs the lines of verisimilitude and makes for a more intriguing read, whether it’s a period piece or modern. For The Meaning of Night, Cox uses the guise of a modern-day editor to put in footnotes and other historical information. This is a really interesting idea, because it allows for the reader to at least imagine that the story is true. If it was actually the product of a Victorian mind, it would never have been published (or probably even written down), as it contains lots of thoughts and actions that would have been unthinkable in the puritanical 19th century. Edward often partakes in opium and prostitutes, he considers himself an atheist, plus, you know, all the murders. Even as a fiction it wouldn’t have gotten published in that century. Consider all the incredible controversy around Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was published about 100 years after The Meaning of Night is supposedly taking place. Of course, The Meaning of Night is fiction entirely, and for my part I found the footnotes often quite distracting. The concept of using the editor is very cool, but the execution isn’t very good in my opinion.
Another problem was the characterization. Edward’s story is really intriguing, and he has a lot of reason to be monomaniacal in his desire to recover what has been taken from him. His mythical quest for revenge is very understandable (even for a pacifist like me), but what isn’t understandable is how often he takes breaks from it. If you were searching for the truth to your true identity, or uncovering the secrets which might lead you to a chance to be with your one true love and inherit land and title, would you take breaks to go to an opium den, fall in love, visit several prostitutes (sometimes simultaneously) and generally waste about a year of your time? Edward is willing to kill to complete his mission, as we see in the very first sentence, but he seems unwilling or unable to actually focus and accomplish his task as time allows. He is easily distracted and doesn’t heed advice to not trust those around him. For someone so dedicated to subterfuge, he is terrible at it, and terrible at recognizing it in others. He’s borderline obtuse at times. At one point, a document is left in a hotel by a man Edward is meeting with. The man is later killed before he is able to tell Edward what he knows about the mystery at hand. It occurred to me immediately that the document left at the hotel might be incredibly important, but it doesn’t occur to Edward for ages, like 100 pages. A lot of the smaller mysteries of the plot, I comprehended far before I was supposed to, which isn’t what you really want from a crime novel. And I’m not usually that adept at figuring these things out, but these seemed fairly obvious because of the clues given in the narrative (especially given the flashback format).
I think the most haunting aspect about the book is actually the story of the author himself. Cox said in interviews that he has had the plot of the book in his head for 30 years, but what spurred him to actually sit down and write it was the threat of oncoming blindness (very Milton-esque). He was diagnosed with a rare vascular cancer and died 3 years ago. I can relate to having a story in your heart for a long time without getting the damn thing done, and I think it’s really nice that he was able to finish it and get it published before he became really ill.He even had time to write a sequel.
I just finished The Meaning of Night this afternoon, so my thoughts are still a little jumbled and unformed. It’s an incredibly detailed and well done book, but I have to say that it’s not as engaging as it should be. It’s not the story it should be. There is too much research and not enough of a novelist in Cox. I don’t regret reading it, especially as it will help me research my own book, but it was lacking something in the emotional arena that I like to get out of a book. Jury’s still out on whether I’ll read the sequel someday.