Review

The Night Following

by Morag Joss

There’s something cozy about the traditional mystery. A
body is found somewhere in Chapter 1, perhaps Lord Muckety-Muck in
the library of his Very Stately Home, and by Chapter 10 we can
expect an amateur detective --- with a deerstalker, aristocratic
title, or at the very least a Belgian accent --- to have delivered
the culprit to us. Blood has been spilled and anguish has been
felt, but it’s all kept within tidy bounds.

I love books of that kind --- I was practically weaned on them ---
but there are also suspense novels that are deeper and more
disturbing, and I enjoy those as well. A mystery, after all, is
potentially a morality play; it deals with matters of life and
death, right and wrong, deceit and violence, guilt and penance. In
that sense, great literature --- HAMLET, ATONEMENT (the book, not
the movie!), and, of course, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT --- may skirt the
edges of this genre, and a really good thriller can aspire to being
a serious novel.

British writer Morag Joss pulled this off brilliantly in the gothic
HALF BROKEN THINGS (winner of the 2003 Crime Writers Association
Silver Dagger Award); her divine Sara Selkirk series, though more
in the cozy category, is equally top-drawer. In PUCCINI’S
GHOSTS, trying too hard for gritty realism, I think she wound up
with an unpleasant and ultimately unsatisfying book. But her
newest, THE NIGHT FOLLOWING, straddles the line between
“regular” fiction and mystery more successfully.

In fact, to begin with, it feels more like an experimental,
willfully disorienting modern novel than a tale of suspense: a
nameless narrator, a lot of philosophizing about contingency and
displacement (an excess of first-person musings is the book’s
only real fault), a novel-within-a-novel, a series of cryptic
letters. But please do persist, because around 90 pages in, the
facts start to fall decisively into place (and I must share some of
them, even at the risk of being a spoiler, or this review
won’t make sense).

The narrator --- a woman of middle age whose hobby is painting,
whose childhood was grim, and who has settled for a numb,
passionless marriage to an anesthesiologist --- discovers that her
husband is having an affair. Not entirely unhappy to shrug off her
marital illusions, but also shocked and distracted, she runs into a
woman on a bicycle and kills her. She retreats, suffused by guilt,
and begins to haunt the house of the widower, Arthur, as if by
watching over him she can expiate her crime. Arthur, meanwhile, is
writing letters to Ruth, his dead wife (a therapeutic exercise
suggested by a grief counselor); fending off officiously helpful
neighbors; and finding chapters from Ruth’s unpublished book
and poems around the house. The novel, THE COLD AND THE BEAUTY AND
THE DARK, is a strongly feminist account, set in the 1930s, of a
working-class woman trapped in marriage and motherhood, and it
parallels the lives of both protagonist and victim in uncanny
ways.

THE NIGHT FOLLOWING is implicitly a portrait of two rather
complacent marriages --- one (the narrator’s) more or less
unhappy; the other (Arthur and Ruth’s) apparently contented.
As Arthur’s letters become longer and more detailed, however,
we see that while he depended on his wife for all things practical
and emotional, she had an inner life apart from him. She
hadn’t even shown him the novel. Arthur and the narrator are
also twinned in the way they mourn --- both sleep during the day
and go about at night, as if the darkness protects them from their
chaotic inner worlds and the invasive sympathy of others.
“Everything gets damped down in the dark,” Arthur
writes to Ruth. “Makes it easier to cope. In the dark
it’s not so obvious you’re not here. I can imagine that
you are and I just can’t see you.” And the narrator,
echoing him: “It was obvious that daylight made [Arthur]
crazy, too, and at the core of our night companionship was a silent
agreement that all we were doing was taking sensible steps to avoid
it.”

To be blind and invisible in this way is another of the
book’s big themes. The narrator’s grandmother was
blind, and so is the heroine of Ruth’s novel; thus, they are
easy to deceive but also capable of transcendent insights. And of
course there is the figurative blindness of the narrator, who
doesn’t “see” until betrayal and sudden death
force her to, that her marriage has no heart and her life has no
point. She was going grocery shopping in her husband’s car
when she looked in the glove compartment and found a condom; Ruth
was cycling along and in the next moment “she became
carrion,” a body in the road stalked by hungry crows. Any
attempt to control our fate with a perfect home, glossy car or
civilized marriage is fruitless.

THE NIGHT FOLLOWING, with its triple point of view (I include
Ruth’s, via her novel), has a complexity of vision that is
sometimes extraordinarily effective. But it is also a lot to
handle. The writing is certainly up to it. Joss’s prose is
subtle, beautiful, smart and sometimes funny and touching.
Arthur’s letters, in a totally different voice from the
narrator’s, are small masterpieces; in a more poetic vein,
the author is very good at evoking the way things slow down and
details grow sharper when catastrophe strikes (blossoming,
windswept trees; bright sky; the victim’s blue hat and broken
body). Her ability to suggest the macabre dimension of everyday
objects and events is in the tradition of the best, earliest works
of Ruth Rendell; in some respects this novel also reminds me of
Daphne Du Maurier’s more romantic REBECCA. But I’m not
so sure that it wouldn’t have been better without the
additional layer of Ruth’s book. And the ending, from which I
expected a revelation, some extra narrative punch, was a bit of a
letdown.

But these are minor objections. THE NIGHT FOLLOWING is a
fascinating book that stretches the boundaries of the pro forma
suspense novel and takes us into the murky realms of guilt and
grief. If you like your mysteries dark, try it.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 13, 2011

The Night Following
by Morag Joss

  • Publication Date: February 26, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press
  • ISBN-10: 0385341180
  • ISBN-13: 9780385341189