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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Meaning Of The Night by Michael Cox

Victorian Noir

Presented as a "confession", a true story penned by the confessor, Edward Glyver, aka Edward Glapthorn. The book included written "journal entries", quoted letters, conversations, etc. Edward, as a child, remembers a mysterious friend of his mother's who would visit. But she died when he was still young. His mother took up writing novels to make money to live on. But on his 12th birthday in 1832 his mother gave him a rosewood box with 200 gold sovereigns in it that had been left with his mother by this friend to be given to him on his 12th birthday. This friend had also arranged for Edward to attend Eton College.

At Eton he meets Phoebus Daunt, son of a lowly clergyman who was sent to Eton by a patron, Lord Tansor of Evenwood. The clergyman and his 2nd wife, the Reverend Achilles and Caroline Daunt have a son named Phoebus Rainsford Daunt. Phoebus was the son of the clergyman and his first wife but his second wife, Caroline, adopted Phoebus as her own and doted on him. Caroline lobbied for the living at Northamptonshire where the estate of Evenwood lay. Once they moved to Northamptonshire, Dr. Daunt was hired by Lord Tansor to catalogue his antique and large library. Caroline introduced Phoebus to Lord Tansor and Phoebus, from a young age, schemed to get in his Lordship's good graces. This led to Eton College and meeting Edward, son of a drunken officer in the Hussars who died just after Edward was born.

They were friends until Edward began to make new friends. In jealousy, Phoebus stole a rare antique book from the school library and secreted it in Edward's trunk. Then he made the allegation that he had seen Edward steal the book. Edward denied it but when the book was found in his trunk, he was expelled and lost his chance of continuing his elite education. He knew it was Phoebus and he never forgave him. He worked on his revenge in an obsession that took over his life.

Phoebus got the expensive and elite education. He became so close to Lord Tansor that Lord Tansor planned to adopt him and name him as his heir. He became successful writing poetry. Edward educated himself, travelled and couldn't seem to decide what he wanted to do. Two very opposite men and, yet, we find out they are also very much alike. In secret they turn out to be evil.

Then Edward finds out that he was adopted by his mother from her girlhood friend, Laura Fairmile Tansor. He is really the son of Lord and Lady Tansor and Lady Tansor had been the friend who visited and left him the 200 gold sovereigns and paid for him to go to Eton. Lady Laura Tansor had died and Lord Tansor had remarried but this Lady did not give him any children. So he was about to adopt Phoebus as his heir.

Who should rightfully inherit a great estate and a sizable fortune? How can Edward find evidence to prove his paternity? Can he stop Phoebus?

Murder, plots, strategies, revenge, obsession lead you through this book. None of the major characters are as they seem. Edward can be gallant, falls in love, is loyal to one of his old school friends and reveres his adopted mother. But he also murders an innocent man (in the first chapter) and lets another one hang for it, consorts with prostitutes, goes on opium and drinking binges, and plots diabolical revenge. He's almost a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Now, did I like it? It has great reviews and is compared to Charles Dickens' works. Yes and No. It was an involving story but was a little slow and didn't keep me reading. I would put it down and not pick it up for days and then did so with a little dread and only because of my obsession to finish the books I read. The story was a twister and had some good plot points but it just didn't keep me interested until the end. Charles Dickens always has characters that you remember and who stereotype certain virtues or vices like Uriah Heep's "'humble man" or Dora's childish innocence. But, as the Washington Post review stated, this novel was "one without a clear ethical center". You didn't like Edward, the main character, or Phoebus, Lord Tansor, Lady Laura Tansor, Mr. Tredgold, Elizabeth Carteret. The only likeable ones were the minor characters. So who do you root for? I realize that today's novels want to be more complex with their characters but this was too much so.

There were also some contrived and convenient breakthroughs that weren't believable. As an authority on 19th century literature and knowing this is not Cox's first book, those should have been ironed out better.

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