A few months ago, I wrote a blog post listing my fifteen favorite first sentences in literature. At the time, I hadn’t read Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night: A Confession, or I would have been forced to give serious consideration to including it. It begins: After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an Oyster Supper. Now that’s a pretty good start. It’s an opening that hooks us immediately on the story, certainly. It’s hard not to wonder what’s going to follow that. More, it hooks us on character—who is this narrator, and how can he describe an act of terrible violence in such a casual manner? I’m happy to report that the balance of the novel lives up to the promise of that first sentence. It is a dark, chilling read, and an utterly compelling one.
Like another favorite of mine, Charles Palliser’s Quincunx, The Meaning of Night is set in the fog-draped London of gaslights and greatcoats—the labyrinthine city that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins described. The language is deliciously Victorian, a pastiche that is always just present enough for flavor but never overpowering enough to distract. And like Quincunx, The Meaning of Night reads like one of the “sensation novels” that Dickens himself might have written, had he the benefit of modern noir sensibility, pacing, and psychological insight while retaining his flair for character and atmosphere.
The story can best be described as, well, Dickensian. There are all the diabolical narrative twists one would expect in a tale of hidden identity, questions of inheritance surrounding a magnificent manor and a considerable fortune, and, of course, revenge. The drive is relentless and the tale is absolutely a page-turner. There are secrets a plenty—some obvious enough, some truly shocking, all earned. But beneath them all, there are deeper levels to explore here. The Meaning of Night is more than a Victorian mystery thriller—it is an unforgettable portrait of psychological obsession, and it is an unrelenting, unflinching exploration of the darkest reaches of the human soul.
The story is compelling, but the most fascinating elements are the characters. None of them are perfect; in fact, most of them are barely sympathetic. Only the most minor bit players are more or less who they seem to be, and not even all of them can be reliably depended upon not to wear a mask or two. Few are entirely innocent in the revealing light of day—the one who comes closest dies quickly; his death is the one referred to in the opening sentence. The next closest is a prostitute. The rest exist somewhere between twilight and the darkness of night. Even the beautiful Emily Carteret, object of the narrator’s obsession and sufferer of a traumatic loss, is very possibly carrying on at least two secret affairs. The rest of her secrets? Enough to say they’ll keep you turning the pages late into the night.
Worst of all, though, is the narrator himself. The narrator is told bluntly at one point to “trust no one.” We’d all do well to bear this in mind, too. Cox raises the concept of the unreliable narrator to a new level. Edward Glyver, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is no heart-of-gold rogue, and certainly no Victorian gentleman hero, even though he comports himself with gentlemanly charm and chivalric courtesy. We know from the opening line that he is capable of unspeakable violence. We learn quickly that he is an accomplished liar. In fact, one of his casual actions may have sent an innocent man to the gallows. More, he shows hints of seeming madness—he is so accused more than once—and is a regular user of both alcohol and opium. Unreliable? Yeah, I’d say so.
But despite the fact that we have, at best, little reason to feel any sympathy at all for Edward Glyver, or even to accept his account of events, Cox’s skill is such that we can’t help but feel for him. We want him to succeed, to achieve his revenge, and claim what is “rightfully” his. In spite of ourselves, we like him. Even—maybe especially—when we really, really don’t want to. Whether we can trust him or not, his is a soul in torment. Is his confession enough to earn him some manner of peace or redemption? That’s a hard question, one to ponder long after the last page is turned. I’ll be interested to know what you think.
Cox has written a sequel, The Glass of Time, one that’s already skipped ahead to the top of my ponderously high “to be read” pile. It’s a stand-alone novel, but from what I can tell from the cover blurb, it seems to deal with some of the consequences of Glyver’s actions. I can’t wait.
Update: I’ve just learned that Michael Cox passed away from cancer in 2009. These two books are all we’ll see from him. Our loss. Rest in peace, sir.
If you liked this review and if you don’t mind, would you please consider using the links below to help spread the word? I’d be grateful.