Pros: A tale of suspense that will keep you up late at night.
Cons: Those not too familiar with Victorian prose will find it rather thick going.
After reading Michael Cox's first novel, The Meaning of Night, a chillingly sinister tale of murder and revenge in Victorian England, I knew I had to read the follow-up. This autumn, the sequel was published. And whew, is the reader in for a ride.
Time has passed since the public and violent murder of Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, a handsome young poet and heir to a vast fortune and aristocratic title. Now the survivors of that crime have tried to move on, with varying degrees of success. Emily Carteret, once Daunt's fiancee, has inherited the title of Baroness Tansor, and is the mistress of the sprawling estate of Evenwood. Arriving at Evenwood is Miss Esperanza Alice Gorst, a prospective lady's-maid to Lady Tansor, a position that she is unusually suited for.
Alice, as she is called by Lady Tansor, is the one narrating the story, and it's quite a tale that she is telling -- for one, it's nearly all lies. She writes her recollections down in what she calls her 'Book of Secrets,' describing the people around her, from Lady Tansor, darkly elegant, holding the memory of her dead fiancee a bit too close to her heart, to Lady Tansor's two sons. Perseus, the elder, is just as darkly handsome and driven as Pheobus, writing poetry and adored by his doting mother. The younger, Randolph, isn't quite so fortunate, easy going and clearly a sportsman, without the darker edges of his brother. Along with them there are glimpses of serving maids and kitchen boys, forbidding footmen, and a grimly smiling housekeeper. Mysterious strangers come and go, and there are plenty of mysteries to uncover -- in short all of the elements of the Gothic novel in its purest form.
And this is where the novel excels. While Alice is our window to the ever-revealing story of Pheobus Daunt and Edward Gorst, now both dead, their rivalry and hatred of each other is echoing through time, with Alice as their unseen cat's-paw. Indeed Esperanza/Alice has spent her entire young life training up to what she calls the Great Task, to bring justice and with Lady Tansor as her target to restore the rightful heir to the Tansor liniage. While she does commit several actions throughout the book, I found myself not at all upset that she steals letters, spies on people and works at hiding her true self from Lady Tansor. Which leads to the interesting premise -- is it 'good' to commit acts of deception if it leads to a greater good, and the righting of a wrong?
The writing style here is very Victorian in tone -- Cox has been publishing nonfiction work on Victorian fiction before turning to novels -- and it does take a bit of time to get used to the very different mode of speaking and interacting with others. To those not too familiar with the novels of the time, it may sound rather over the top and stilted, but I enjoyed it very much. It's also a novel that harkens back to such detective classics as Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White and The Moonstone, along with modern writers, especially A.S. Byatt's Possession. Along with the story itself, there are quite a few insights into the life of a maid in Victorian England, the English abroad, and how the upper classes lived. While Alice does inhabit that no-man's-land of governesses and paid companions in that world, she's hardly shuttered in by her life -- she is a full player in the conspiracies around her, and does her own share of controlling, thank you.
While there is enough backstory put in to help understand the why of the Great Task, it really is necessary to have read The Meaning of Night to really grasp the gentle nudges and darkness of this novel.
Summing up, this is a very good book for those who want their stories to be complex, full of plot and hidden meanings, this is a fine thriller to take in. I don't know if there is going to be a follow up to this one, but I will be looking forward to any more novels that Michael Cox can dream up.
Five stars overall, highly recommended.
The Glass of Time
2008; W.W. Norton and Company
Update: Sadly, Michael Cox passed away on 31 March 2009. He was 60 years old. He left behind a wife, a daughter, and two stepdaughters.