The Meaning of Night is a true Victorian
potboiler. The convoluted plot revolves around Edward, who
introduces himself in the first line as a murderer, and is soon,
by his own words, shown to be a morally compromised, monomaniac.
Not the sort of person one would naturally feel sympathy for;
but he is persuasive and strangely likeable in a rather unsavory
sort of way; and, as his grievances are revealed, the reader
can't help but feel a certain sympathy for him - according to
the letter of the law his crimes are many but, morally speaking,
one is left with the feeling that perhaps his only crime was the
one to which he confesses in his opening sentence.
This is a book that you are likely to either love or hate. The four key pre-publication review sources in the USA all give it a "starred review", but both reviewers writing for the Daily Telegraph (UK), and Janet Maslin, writing in The New York Times give it a definitive thumbs down. Whether you enjoy it will largely depend on whether you can give yourself up to the plot in all its melodramatic Victoriana; there are any number of points in this almost 700-page novel where things could have been concluded, if only our protagonist had taken one extra step, instead he meanders off elsewhere - a useful device for keeping readers of a weekly serial absorbed (and, as we all know, many of the best known Victorian novels were written for serialization), but it's a device that feels a little labored to the modern reader. As for the denouement, most readers will spot it coming many chapters ahead.
The characters are delightfully typecast - there's the tragic figure of our much put-upon anti-hero who is driven to commit violence for what he believes is a justified cause; a truly dastardly old-Etonian poetry-spouting villain (who, if this was a play, would receive hisses from the audience every time he came on stage); the exceedingly wealthy and influential Lord Tansor, living off the gains of his brighter ancestors; a dead-ringer for Uriah Heap; plus a massive supporting cast representing every strata of society, both urban and country; and last but not least, Evenwood House itself and its great library - the representation of everything that Edward yearns for but that remains tantalizingly out of reach (for more about Evenwood and the library see the sidebar).
About the Author: Michael Cox was born in
Northamptonshire in 1948. After graduating from Cambridge in
1971, he went into the music business as a songwriter and
recording artist, releasing two albums and a number of singles
for EMI under the name Matthew Ellis and a further album, as
Obie Clayton, for the DJM label. In 1977, he took a job in
publishing, with the Thorsons Publishing Group (now part of
HarperCollins). In 1989, he joined Oxford University Press,
where he became Senior Commissioning Editor of Reference
Books. Since then he has published a number of books including
widely respected anthologies such as The Oxford Book of
Victorian Detective Stories; The Oxford Book of Victorian
Ghost Stories; and The Oxford Chronology of English
Literature, a major scholarly resource containing
bibliographical information on 30,000 titles from 4,000 authors,
dating from 1474 to 2000.
In April 2004, he began to lose his sight as a result of cancer. In preparation for surgery he was prescribed a steroidal drug, one of the effects of which was to initiate a temporary burst of mental and physical energy. This, combined with the stark realization that his blindness might return if the treatment wasn't successful, spurred him finally to begin writing in earnest the novel that he had been contemplating for over thirty years, and which up to then had only existed as a random collection of notes, drafts, and discarded first chapters. Following surgery, work continued on The Meaning of Night, which was sold at a hotly contested auction in the UK in January 2005.
He still lives in Northamptonshire with his wife Dizzy, and is currently working on a sequel, which will be set twenty years later and will feature a few of the characters from The Meaning of Night, principally Emily Carteret. If the second book works out, he would like to write a third book, taking the story up to the early years of the twentieth century and the final demise of the Duport dynasty and the breaking-up of its physical symbol Evenwood.
This review was originally published in October 2006, and has been updated for the October 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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