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The Meaning of Night - Michael Cox

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

SOMEONE I held in great esteem once told me that she only read a book if she liked the opening paragraph. I wonder then what she would have made of The Meaning of Night, Michael Cox’ debut novel that begins with the single line, ‘After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.’

As for myself, I was intrigued. After all, what sort of man could do such a thing? The answer – Edward Glyver/Glapthorn, a man with a mission – to exact revenge for the wrongs committed against him by former fellow Etonian Phoebus R Daunt, poet and man about town.

It’s a quest that takes him from the ‘great Leviathan’ that is Victorian London, with its foggy streets, brothels and opium dens, to one of England’s most beautiful mansions – Evenwood in the county of Northamptonshire, seat of the 25th Baron Tansor.

However, Glyver’s original motive – that of opportunities denied – soon develops into something of far greater significance when, following his mother’s death, the true circumstances of his birth come to light. And complicating matters still further is Miss Emily Carteret, the object of Glyver’s obsession.

Written in a first person narrative, The Meaning of Night takes the form of a confession, masterfully transporting readers into the very heart and mind of Glyver, in the process, arousing emotions as diverse as pity and revulsion – pity for the man so grievously wronged, revulsion for the man capable of such cold-blooded and indiscriminate murder.

The Meaning of Night is, for the most part, a dark tale – as dark as night itself or the opium-induced dreams that haunt Glyver – and in many ways, it reminds me of Louis Bayard’s Mr Timothy – the Thames sequences in particular. For like Bayard, Cox has brought Victorian London startlingly to life.

And the imagery is superb. Take for example, the ‘dozens of glistening fried eggs, like so many miniature suns’ that Evan’s in Covent Garden had to offer late night diners – along with ‘steaming sausages, sizzling cayenned kidneys and leathery baked potatoes’; or completely different, the ‘black dust-filled nets of spiders’ webs, undulating eerily in the dank air like discarded grave cloths.’

For the most part, the chapters have Latin titles (all translated) but a delight for Latin scholars nonetheless, and the whole is complemented with ‘editorial interpolations and footnotes’ which, while undoubtedly adding to the aura of authenticity, are sometimes a distraction – The Meaning of Night is, after all, a riveting tale that demands the reader’s full attention.

With its convoluted journey from start to finish, Glyver’s confession will appal and surprise in equal measure. But is what he did forgiveable? I’ll leave that for you to decide.