Edward Glyver is hard done by. Phoebus Daunt, an old school chum and now a famous if not especially talented poet, has deprived Edward of everything that matters to him. Phoebus started in school, framing Edward for theft and getting him thrown out, thus thwarting his chance for a university education and ruining his career as a scholar. Devastating as Phoebus's early crimes were, they pale in comparison to Phoebus's adult mischief. Now Edward's inheritance and future wife are at stake, and Phoebus will stop at nothing to ruin Edward's prospects.
As the book opens, Edward has just murdered a total stranger, a trial run for the inevitable moment when he will have to confront his nemesis. It's a strange amoral gesture, the sort of thing that makes it hard to root wholeheartedly for Edward, no matter what Phoebus does to him. The spies he sets to watch the woman he loves, the lies he tells to virtually everyone, his shifting multitude of identities, the unsavory nature of his occupation, "unofficially" managing client problems for a prestigious lawyer --- all of this forces the reader to wonder if Edward is really very different from his enemy. Is it Phoebus who has destroyed him, or Edward's single-minded pursuit of revenge? What is the actual conflict, and what is the paranoia of the opium addict?
Edward may be paranoid, but that doesn't mean no one is out to get him. From his secret birth, always hidden from his powerful father, to the spies that trace his every move and send him secret notes, it seems impossible that he will triumph over Phoebus Daunt, a man with every advantage (no matter how Phoebus managed to come by them). As we see Phoebus mainly through Edward's eyes, it appears as if Edward spends far more time thinking about Phoebus than Phoebus spends thinking about Edward. If their conflict remained only the result of a schoolboy prank turned mean, that would certainly be true. But as Edward learns more about the mystery concerning his own background, it becomes clear that Phoebus is equally determined to destroy him for the secrets he keeps and the unbelievable truth of his real identity.
THE MEANING OF NIGHT is long and complicated yet never tedious or predictable. This in itself is a surprise. As the format is so familiar, it's easy for readers to assume they know what will happen next. But twists and turns abound as evidence emerges, witnesses come forward and alliances develop.
Victorian England is presented with a wealth of meticulous research. We know the address of every dining establishment, brief histories of every writer and political figure, definitions of every Latin phrase our frustrated scholar can't resist, and more than we'll ever need to know concerning the Crimean War. For fans of Charles Dickens or, more recently, Charles Palliser (THE QUINCUNX), THE MEANING OF NIGHT is a rare treat.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on January 7, 2011