Michael Cox

(Jump down to read a review of The Meaning of Night)

"The Glass of Time"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky OCT 14, 2008)

"Secrets! Would there never be an end to them? Where was honesty and open dealing between those who professed to love each other? So much had been hidden away, so much entombed in dark places. Why did they never tell me? I had placed all my trust in them, and they had deceived me."

The Glass of Time by Michael Cox

Michael Cox's The Glass of Time is a Victorian mystery that is narrated by a vivacious and extremely intelligent central character, Esperanza Alice Gorst. Nineteen-year-old Esperanza never knew her parents and was raised in France by a kindly guardian, Madame de l'Orme, and tutored by a brilliant scholar named Basil Thornhaugh. Esperanza has been hired to be a lady's maid for a beautiful fifty-two year old widow--the 26th Baroness Tansor, formerly Miss Emily Carteret. Emily is the fabulously wealthy mistress of Evenwood, a magnificent estate "more ravishing to the senses than any sultan's palace." However, she does not enjoy peace of mind, since she has endured great tragedies. Both her father and her fiancé, Phoebus Daunt, were murdered over two decades earlier. Although she eventually married and produced two sons, Emily still mourns Daunt and thinks of him daily with great sadness.

It is no accident that Esperanza finds herself in Evenwood. Her guardian arranged for her to ingratiate herself with Lady Tansor in order to accomplish a "Great Task," but Esperanza will not learn the particulars of her mission until the time is right. Meanwhile, she keeps a journal, her "Book of Secrets," in which she carefully records all of her opinions and observations: She senses that Emily will never marry again, since "marriage would bring her no material advantage. Nor will she succumb to Love again, for her heart is shut fast against all further assaults...." Esperanza also sizes up her lady's heir, Perseus Duport, and his younger brother, Randolph, and concludes that Perseus is proud, reserved, and poetic, while Randolph is athletic, spontaneous, and genial. The household is filled with servants, a few of whom welcome Esperanza warmly. Others, including the enigmatic housekeeper, Jane Battersby, treat her with distant formality.

Cox's skillful use of language, rich character development, and evocation of the Victorian era are all superb. The author lures us into his world so completely that we soon feel as if we inhabit it ourselves. Since we know nothing more than Esperanza does about her "Great Task" (although there are several clues that point to the truth) we are riveted by the gradually unfolding drama that proves to be grandly theatrical. Cox's story is Dickensian in scope, with a huge cast that only a devoted and meticulous reader will be able to follow. The narrative is filled with betrayals, murders, conspiracies, leering villains, a touching romance, impossible coincidences, and hidden documents. The themes are familiar ones: We can never escape our true destiny; our misdeeds have a way of catching up with us; secrets and lies have a way of destroying both the perpetrators and their victims.

Unfortunately, The Glass of Time is almost undone by its dense and convoluted plot. At almost six hundred pages, the book could have been trimmed and simplified with no loss of coherence. The ending, in particular, veers into melodrama and contains a few too many twists and turns that border on the ridiculous. Nevertheless, the talented Michael Cox has produced an engrossing work of fiction that could have been an unqualified success had it been less complex and more realistic.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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"The Meaning of Night: A Confession"

(Reviewed by Danielle Bullen OCT 14, 2008)

“I have been given my own ever-changing margins, across which I move, continually and hungrily, like a migrating animal. Now civilized, now untamed; now responsive to human decent and human concern, now viciously attuned to the darkest of desires.”

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.” With an opening line like that, it’s easy to see why I picked up a copy of The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox. The novel rests on an interesting premise. A fictional manuscript dating from Victorian England has been discovered and it is the confession of Edwards Glyver. What Glyver confesses to is at the heart of this darkly compelling story.

It quickly becomes clear that the red-haired man is collateral damage. Glyver kills him as practice for killing his adversary, Phoebus Daunt. Their hatred dates back to their days at Eton when Daunt frames Glyver by planting a stolen rare book in his room. Caught red-handed, Glyver is forced to leave the school in shame. “Revenge has a long memory,” he tells his foe, and that become the main theme of the novel. Frustratingly, is never explained why Daunt commits this crime. That is one of several loose ends that readers of The Meaning of Night must face. While I questioned whether the events at Eton are enough to justify Glyver’s hunt of Daunt, it is a greater injustice that is the backbone of his dark quest.

Through a series of intricately plotted discoveries, Glyver learns that the woman he believed to be his mother was not. Instead, his birth mother, Lady Laura Duport, plotted to give up her baby to her friend, his adoptive mother. The Duports are heirs to the Tansor lordship, and one of the wealthiest families in England. Glyver is in line to inherit their fortune. Proving his lineage becomes one of the cornerstones of the story. Lord Duport, seemingly without a biological heir, decides to adopt one, and chooses none other than Phoebus Daunt. Daunt’s death, then, is the only way Glyver can claim his inheritance.

Assuming a false identity, Glyver finds work for Mr. Tredgold, the Duport’s attorney, work that brings him in frequent contact with the family. A series of characters flit in and out. Some, like Bella, his favorite courtesan, serve merely ornamental purposes. Others, like Emily, the woman Glyver loves, are catalysts for even deeper plot twists. All the characters, though, take a backseat to Glyver, one of the most calculating narrators I have come across recently.

There are several peaks and valleys in The Meaning of Night. What begins as a noir crime novel, peppered with phrases like, “We proceeded westward through the raw October cold and the thickening misty,” soon turns into a psychological portrait. Large chunks are devoted to the main characters’—Glyver and Daunt’s—back stories. The story is mostly told in flashback. The narrator only circles back to the killing of the red-haired man within the last 50 or so pages, which are, in my opinion, the best in the book. At times, the jumping through time (entire years go by within paragraphs), is very confusing, as is the extensive list of characters. The novel could have benefited from a dramatis personae, a list of characters a bewildered reader like me could refer back to.

While some of the characters’ motives are suspect, it is best to suspend disbelief and engross yourself in Cox’s skillful prose. The settings of Victorian England, from lush opium dens to mannered country estates, are precisely drawn. If anything, this is a richly atmospheric novel. Although the plot has its holes and asks a lot of the reader in terms of leaps of faith, it is Glyver who keeps it chugging along. Whether you root for his drive to lay claim to the fortune or whether his amoral hijinks leave you cold, Glyver’s journey will make you turn the pages until the shocking end.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 75 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)


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About the Author:

Michael CoxMichael Cox was born in Northamptonshire in 1948. After graduating from Cambridge in 1971, he went into the music business as a songwriter and recording artist, releasing two albums and a number of singles under alias names. In 1977, he took a job in publishing, with the Thorsons Publishing Group (now part of HarperCollins). In 1989, he joined Oxford University Press, where he became Senior Commissioning Editor, Reference Books.

In April 2004, he began to lose his sight as a result of cancer. In preparation for surgery he was prescribed a steroidal drug, one of the effects of which was to initiate a temporary burst of mental and physical energy. This, combined with the stark realization that his blindness might return if the treatment wasn't successful, spurred Michael finally to begin writing in earnest the novel that he had been contemplating for over thirty years, and which up to then had only existed as a random collection of notes, drafts, and discarded first chapters. Following surgery, work continued on what is now The Meaning of Night, and in January 2005, after a hotly contested UK auction, it was sold to John Murray.

Encouraged by the reception of The Meaning of Night — over twenty foreign-language editions, dozens of positive reviews from both professionals and ordinary readers, and shortlist nominations for both the Costa and Galaxy book awards — Cox began a sequel, eventually titled The Glass of Time, in the spring of 2006, soon after finishing The Meaning of Night. He completed the first draft in the autumn of 2007 — a period that coincided with the gradual deterioration of his remaining eyesight.

Michael Cox still lives in his native Northamptonshire with his wife Dizzy.

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