Book Review: The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox

The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox

Pub. Date: October 2007
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Format: Paperback, 703pp
Age Range: Adult
ISBN-13: 9780393330342

Synopsis from the book jacket:
A chance discovery convinces Edward Glyver that greatness awaits him.  His path to win back what is rightfully his leads him to Evenwood, one of England’s most enchanting country houses, and a woman who will become his obsession.
My review:
It was a long time coming, but I finally finished The Meaning of Night.  I should note that when I began the novel, I had a pile of four books going at the same time.  And there were days — well, maybe weeks — where I felt unable to concentrate on anything challenging.  I gave my energies to easy reads or books that yielded quick rewards. Still, my bumpy start and slow progress through the novel’s first half was not entirely my fault.

The story begins in medias res — although not so much in the middle, as near the end — so that the author may use this narrative hook as the first sentence:

“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.”

Immediately we wonder about our narrator, who is able to kill a man and matter-of-factly tell us how he sat down to dinner afterward.  We learn that he, Edward, brutally stabbed a man at random, for the sole purpose of proving to himself that he could commit murder.  Thus begins our anti-hero’s confessional account of his obsessive quest for revenge and our curious desire to learn more.
The novel is divided into five parts. To my chagrin, after briefly describing events following the murder in the first part, Edward rewinds and begins his back story in the second part. This is where things get bogged down.  Rest assured, though, if the reader can persevere through this section and half of the intermezzo that follows (pp 102 – 243), the novel does find its legs.

The Meaning of Night is a potboiler for sure.  The second half moves quickly, and you’ll find yourself turning the pages.  Once I devoted my time solely to this book, I plowed through the final 350 pages in two days.  So be patient; the rewards will come.  This is a 700-page novel, after all.  If you cannot give the book your attention for at least an hour at a time, I wouldn’t recommend reading it.  And if you are impatient to find out the final result, I’ll warn you that it is nearly 600 pages later when the timeline returns to where part one paused.  It’s not so much where Edward ends up that is of interest (after all, he tells us that up front), but how and why he gets there.  And it’s perversely enjoyable to watch things unfold.

As I mentioned, Edward is not our hero, but our anti-hero.  You begin dubiously and cautiously, a bit unwilling to sympathize with a man whose moral depravities — before he adds murder to the list — include recreational use of opium and laudanum, as well as indulgence in erotic literature and prostitutes, one of which is his lover.  He even admits that its incestuous aspect makes the prospect of a romantic relationship with his cousin all the more appealing! However, when viewed against the darker shadow cast by his even more despicable foe, Edward becomes a character you are willing and able to sympathize with.  Eventually, you even applaud some of his triumphs.

In addition to Edward and his rival, Phoebus Daunt, nearly all of the supporting cast is flawed.  Several are selfish, devious, and vengeful.  And many keep secrets out of love and loyalty, though the one might be inappropriate and the other misplaced.  Love is portrayed more often as a blinding and weakening influence than as a force of strength. Healthy relationships of any sort are not prevalent.  In short, most of these folks are neither innocent nor likeable.  But that makes for good drama.

The novel is distinctly and authentically period, though this sometimes comes at a price.  It seems the author, not unlike his protagonist, suffers from a need to display his bibliophilic knowledge and acumen for all things Victoriana through the use of footnotes peppered throughout the novel.  For the average reader, these notes add little to the story, but rather become a distraction and annoyance.  A few times, I mentally griped at the author: Enough already…I know you’ve done your homework!

Aside from the distracting footnotes and the extensive back story, once the novel gained momentum, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Although most of the plot twists failed to surprise me, my interest was sustained by a desire to see how Edward came upon new discoveries or uncovered betrayals.  While he is never wholly reliable, it is captivating to watch the machinations of Edward’s always obsessive, occasionally paranoid, and at times, insane mind.

For the curious, there is a sequel that takes place some 20 years later: The Glass of Time. But as for me, I think I’ll find respite for a while in the green pastures of Anne of Green Gables….

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