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Michael Cox – The Meaning of Night

April 9, 2008

44. The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox (2006)

Read by David Timson (Editor’s notes read by Neville Wenlock)
Length: 22h 11min (704 pages)

Genre: Mystery; Historical Fiction

Started: 01 April 2008
Finished: 09 April 2008

Summary: Our narrator, one Mr. Edward Glapthorn (or is he?) starts his confession by describing how he killed a stranger, simply to see if he had the constitution and nerve required of him to kill his “enemy” when he finally had the opportunity to wreak his revenge. That enemy is Phoebus Daunt, known to the narrator since they were at school together, whose life has been from that point fatefully intertwined with that of our narrator. From the murder of the very first pages, our narrator slowly unfolds for us his history – a tale of secrets, deceit, violence, treachery, love, betrayal, inheritances won and lost, the stratified social life of 1850s London, death, theft, and ultimately, revenge.

Review: Most of the other reviews of this novel that I’ve seen trot out the word “Dickensian” within the first few lines (and now I’m no exception!). Having only ever read A Christmas Carol myself, I can’t really comment on that front, but it’s clear that the first and foremost achievement of this novel is to so precisely hit its tone that it is remarkable that this book was published in 2006 and not 150 years before. The trappings of Victoriana are all there, as are the standard inheritance/class/revenge story points, but the dialogue, mood, subject matter, and writing style are so masterfully crafted that it pulls off the feat of being a historical novel in modern times, and expertly treads the fine line of seeming to belong to another era without feeling out of date, of replicating Victorian literary conventions while still feeling like something new.

The book is long, no question, but I found myself being pulled along unhesitatingly. By about halfway through, I didn’t really like any of the characters, and yet I still really cared about the outcome. The Meaning of Night is one of those interesting cases where I wasn’t really sure who to root for… Phoebus Daunt unquestionably deserves to have some vengeance wreaked upon him, but Edward, our narrator, is such a smug, remorseless, arrogant asshole, most of whose troubles are brought upon himself, that I couldn’t wholeheartedly support him, either. The ending was satisfying enough, although I didn’t particularly like the way the penultimate “twist” was handled – I don’t know if the author intended it to come off as sexist as it did, or if that’s just another echo of earlier times.

The audiobook was excellently done; I thought the narration matched the tone of the writing style perfectly. However, note that the text version contains a lot of footnotes that don’t appear in the audiobook. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Absorbing neo-Victorian mystery, although it was a bit strange to listen to it on beautiful sunny spring days… but it would be well worth looking into if you’re hunting for something curl up with on a dark and stormy night.

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


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