Book Review: The Meaning of Night

The Meaning of Night, by Michael Cox, is a thick, sumptuous chunk of Victorian thriller, as full of melodrama as a Wilkie Collins novel, and stuffed with period detail.  Set in the 1850s, it opens with this astonishing statement:

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

This is the confession of Edward Glyver, an engaging and obsessive anti-hero, who turns out to be more of an innocent fool than the adroit and cunning man of the world he seems to be. Denied a great inheritance, he dedicates his life to regaining his birthright. He also falls in love with a woman who is, like Glyver, playing a game of deception.

Cox draws him as an extremely complex and intelligent man who nevertheless fails to understand the events surrounding his clandestine quest until their meaning is made disastrously clear. His readers, on the other hand, have an inkling of what’s going on. We’re in the position of the cinema audience shouting “Look out behind you!” to a character on the screen.

One of the great delights of the book is that Glyver is a bibliophile, a collector of fine and rare volumes. This passion is reflected in his writing, which makes frequent references to specific titles, and often quotes from them. The great country house that is the object of his quest, Evenwood in Northamptonshire, contains a grand library whose description had me salivating. The novel even has footnotes to clarify references in Glyver’s manuscript.

At 698 pages, the book slows down in places, but these correspond to Glyver’s periods of despondency and inaction, characterized by bouts of drinking and resorts to opium. And during these periods, events are moving forward – we can see them but Glyver can’t.

Michael Cox started writing The Meaning of Night in 2004, after being diagnosed with cancer, though the novel had been gestating in his mind for the last 30 years. Published in 2006, it was his first novel, followed by the sequel, The Glass of Time, in 2008. Sadly, he died in 2009, a great loss to fiction.

I also read The Glass of Time. It’s every bit as good, and answers all those tantalizing questions you were wondering about at the end of The Meaning of Night.

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