Monday, July 16

Michael Cox: The Meaning of Night - A Confession

When a chance discovery leads a man to suspect that he is not the son of a widowed writer, as he has been brought up to believe, but the heir to one of Britain’s oldest, most noble families and greatest fortunes, he will stop at nothing to prove his case. His frustration increases as at every turn his path is blocked and evidence of his true identity destroyed by a rival from his schooldays.
A tale of love, loss, revenge and murder, this story takes us traipsing through Victorian London from opium dens, brothels and haunts of the criminal underclass to one of the most beautiful houses in the country.
The author uses an unusual approach to this story claiming that he merely ‘edited’ a collection of letters, papers and diaries that he ‘discovered’ into a comprehensive tale that may or may not be a work of fiction. Certainly he gets the voice of the Victorian writer spot on. I could quite easily believe that the author of this work was a contemporary of the time. There is a lot of historic detail in not only the places and events mentioned but also in the language used that adds to the feeling of authenticity.
The writer, in the guise of the ‘editor’, did tend to add in a number of footnotes some explaining terms, some offering translations, most asserting the veracity of a place, name or event. In the beginning I found these distracting since they added nothing to the story itself seeming to be little more than a venue for the author to showcase his knowledge. (And as an historian of the era the author has a lot of knowledge about it.) However, I quickly learned to ignore the presence of the footnotes and the story read much more smoothly for that.
The book opens with an unprovoked murder before returning the reader to an earlier time and filling in the events that led to that pass. I found myself feeling sympathetic toward the main character and curious as to how events would unfold even though I knew where his path would eventually lead him. That is all the evidence of good writing anyone needs right there.
True to the style of the time, the many meandering paths of various characters come together as the story draws to its dramatic conclusion but there is very little reliance on coincidence or fate to bring this about. It is more an awareness of how one event can have future consequences for all those touched by it no matter how peripheral they might seem.
I did enjoy this book, though I didn’t find it the compelling read the reviews I had seen led me to expect. At just on six hundred pages it is a bit of an epic and it is only in the last third that the pace really picks up and things start to happen.
Anyone who had to be forced to read Dickens at school is probably not going to like this book. (Not that Cox comes up to the level of Dickens’ genius but it is Dickens voice that is probably the best known of the Victorian style today) But for anyone not put off by the length and who enjoys an authentic Victorian feel (or is simply willing to judge a book by its cover - I loved the cover art on this) The Meaning of Night is not to be missed. Just skip the footnotes.-Lynn

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