Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land

Incidentally, guys, I am having the best reading summer imaginable. I think I mentioned some time back that it has been working well for me to plan ahead a bit what I’m going to read, about three months at a time, and it’s still working well, but for summer, I thought, I’m not going to try to read the oldest things on my list or whatever, I’m just going to read exactly what I want to. And I’ve been reading the loveliest, most exciting string of books, one after another, like eating kiwiberries (grape-sized kiwis you can just pop in your mouth, without the fuzzy exterior. Holla!)

Anyway. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, by John Crowley, is made up of two strands. In one, an epistolary strand, we read the emails going back and forth between Smith Novak, her partner Thea Spann, and her father Lee Novak. Smith has gone to London to do research for a feminist website on Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter. Ada (a real person) was a scientist and mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage, and Smith’s job is to find out more. What she finds, however, is compelling, disturbing, and enormous in its potential: Ada spent her last days, as she was dying of cervical cancer, transcribing a manuscript into cipher. The manuscript appears to be a novel by her father, Lord Byron — a novel no one ever knew he wrote. The second strand of the book is, of course, Lord Byron’s novel itself, told to us in thrilling pieces, galloping faster and faster until the very end.

Books that involve real people as characters — a really popular recent literary trend — have a big job to do. Does the Jane Austen who is solving mysteries really feel like the Jane Austen we “know” from her novels? Would Teddy Roosevelt really have done what this author says he would do? But John Crowley set his bar even higher by making his “character” not Byron or Ada Lovelace, but their writing. We can never know Byron as he was in person — mad, bad, and dangerous to know — but his writing is always open to us, revealing and vulnerable.

This novel is woven in a wonderfully complex way. There is the pure pleasure of each strand of the book: getting to know Smith and Thea and Lee from their email voices; following Byron’s novel in all its 19th-century adventure-novel glory (mesmerism! zombies! far-off oriental lands! evil twins!); codes and ciphers; daring rescues; deathbed confessions; Ada’s own voice coming through the annotations. There are the doubled themes of broken father-daughter relationships: Ada, taken from Byron as an infant and learning to understand him only as an adult, and Smith, who was separated from her father, too, because he committed a crime very like Roman Polanski’s. There is the theme of art, which makes us human, and the theme of forgiveness, which is only possible through our humanity, stretching across time and space and brokenness.

This book is rich and satisfying, and also tremendous fun. Crowley is playing with different narrative tricks, and once gets a little too tricky for his own good (Roony J. Welch? Come on.) But it’s glorious reading. I was absorbed every moment. Highly recommended, as is every book I’ve read by Crowley so far: can the man do no wrong?

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14 Responses to Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land

  1. Susan says:

    And now I feel very inspired to read this. A friend gave me a copy of this several years back, but of course I’ve never gotten around to it. But now I see I can read this, learn about Ada and Babbage, then return to The Difference Engine, which I started a couple months back, but set aside because I didn’t know the back story of the various “real life” characters.

    Thanks, Jenny!

    • Jenny says:

      You’re certainly going to get some of Ada’s life in this book, though not much about Babbage. But still, I can’t bring myself to dissuade you. This was such fun to read, it can’t be wrong!

  2. Very interesting. I have not read this one yet, for no good reason. Right up the ol’ 19th century alley. I have an excuse to put off Four Freedoms, but no excuse for this one.

    Somewhere on his livejournal, Crowley mentions that this book sold better than anything else he had written. I assume he meant sold better early on – Little, Big must have sold more overall. The Byron hook brought the novel extra attention and readers.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, it would, I should think. I thought the novel was remarkably like something Byron might have written, all things considered, and the narrative tricks were galloping good fun.

      Four Freedoms looks good to me, but I’m seeing people taken aback by it because it’s not fantasy. I think I’m going to read his three early novels next — Otherwise, is that right?

    • I had to look up Otherwise – those early novels have been packaged in various ways. They’re pretty good. Engine Summer is especially good.

      If you’re going down that road, the short story collection (Novelties and Souvenirs) is worth reading, too, especially a long time travel story, “Great Work of Time”.

      • Jenny says:

        I fully intend to read everything he’s written, eventually. I’m not a completist with very many authors — there’s no point, for one thing, and for another most authors aren’t worth it. But I think I’ll keep plugging away at Crowley, who — allow me to be understated — has not yet disappointed me.

  3. This looks like the perfect book to be reading during Ada Lovelace Day!

    • Jenny says:

      My goodness, I didn’t know anything about Ada Lovelace Day! 16th October, everyone, in case you were wondering, and yes, this would be the perfect novel!

  4. Jenny says:

    Oh Proper Jenny. I can never resist epistolary fiction, and I scarcely ever can resist things that are about literary mysteries, even though I know the epistolary fiction will never be Daddy-Long-Legs and the literary mysteries will never be Arcadia. Also because the glorious new technologies make it so I can have this book straightaway.

    (Just checked it out on my Nook.)

  5. aartichapati says:

    There is another book with this same cover that is also set in the Georgian/Regency period (but is non-fiction about a blind man who traveled all over Europe).

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