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?