"Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 1, 2005)
"Is there any spur to our tender feelings that is as sharp as Renunciation? We say we must part—we gaze upon each other—we feel every reason why we should not part, thrown as it were into relief, even by our resolution—we see the drear and empty desert of our Future, lived alone…and we cling again, to comfort one another, in close embrace, whispering 'we must part'—and part not!"
The young son of an Albanian mother is discovered in Albania by his Scottish father, Lord Sane, who brings him back to the family's deteriorating manse in Scotland, and schools him for a new life as his heir. Ali, the boy, apparently tainted by the Sane family curse, soon begins his misadventures. A painful young love, a gruesome hanging, an escape by ship in the moonlight, the discovery of a young woman masquerading as a boy, ominous sleepwalking episodes, the periodic appearance of a bear, the arrival of a ghostly double, false imprisonment—all these events figure in Ali's story, which offers a panoply of adventures incorporating all the complications of a classical Gothic romance.
Author John Crowley presents Ali's story as the missing novel written by George Gordon, Lord Byron, in 1816, creating a scenario in which Byron's missing manuscript is sold to finance Byron's involvement in European movements promoting Liberty and Freedom. Showing clear parallels between many of the events in Ali's story and similar events in Byron's life, Crowley also connects Bryon and his manuscript with Byron's estranged daughter Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. Ada, who never knew her father, might have acquired the novel and secretly preserved it as a living connection with her absent father.
In a third plot line, a web site designer, Alexandra Novak, known as "Smith," is working on a site devoted to women's science history. Georgiana, her client, has always been interested in Ada and her life, and purchases a collection of papers found in a seaman's trunk which once belonged to Ada's son Byron, who ran away to sea. Georgiana shows Smith a single sheet of an unknown manuscript, in what looks like Byron's handwriting. Accompanying this single sheet are many pages containing long vertical columns of numbers, their importance unknown. Since Ada was a mathematician associated with Charles Babbage, with whom she worked on the "difference engine," much like the modern computer, the mysterious pages of numbers might signal an important mathematical discovery—or they could be some sort of code in which Ada has preserved Byron's novel.
Crowley maintains a fine sense of where and when to change the focus from Ali to Ada to Smith in order to keep the tension and interest high, creating intriguing plot lines which intersect and gradually reveal parallels in the lives of the characters. Life, love, betrayal, alienation, separation and reconciliation are themes pervading all the subplots, creating a consummately romantic novel on all levels. The coincidences and moments of revelation, common to all romantic novels, keep the reader amused and, on a literary level, intrigued with the question of how Crowley will resolve the plot lines in his conclusion.
Crowley 's ability to differentiate rhetorical styles for his characters contributes to the novel's fascination. Ali's story is written in the language that Byron might have used, with somewhat dated vocabulary and spelling, complex sentence structure, and a level of formality rare in contemporary writing. The formal footnotes at the end of the chapters of Ali's story, written by Ada, explain some of the Byronic references, giving the reader much information about Byron which could not otherwise be included in the novel. E-mails between Smith and her estranged father, formerly a student of Lord Byron, show the renewal of their relationship, while the e-mails between Smith and her partner, Thea Spann, written in the colloquial language of e-mail, show their affection and continuing interest in Ada's story.
Lovers of Lord Byron's writing may question how closely Crowley duplicates Lord Byron's style and content in the Ali story, and some lovers of Crowley's writing may question whether this is as fine a novel as some of his other novels. Personally, I loved it. A structural problem stems from the fact that there is very little real suspense, however. Crowley begins the novel with an episode from Ali's life, so it is obvious from the opening page that Byron's novel IS discovered. The biographies of Bryon and Ada are well documented, so no suspense evolves from new discoveries about their lives. The process by which Smith and Thea find the secret to the numerical pages is intriguing, but it represents only a fraction of the book. Ali's story moves back and forth, and the episodes in his life are similar to those in many other Gothic romances, not unique. Still, I found the novel to be absolutely delightful to read—a terrific escape into romanticism, possibly the most classically romantic novel in recent years.
- Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land at HarperCollins
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Deep (1975) (available in Otherwise: Three Novels)
- Beasts (1976) (available in Otherwise: Three Novels)
- Engine Summer (1979) (available in Otherwise: Three Novels)
- Little, Big (1981)
- Ægypt (1987)*
- Novelty: Four Stories (1989)
- Great Work of Time (1991)
- Antiquities: Seven Stories (1993)
- Love and Sleep (1994)*
- Dæmonomania (2000)*
- The Translator (2002)
- Novelties & Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction (2004)
- The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines: A Story (May 2005)
- Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (June 2005)
* Ægypt quartet (not yet completed)
- Snake's Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley by Alice K. Turner, Michael Andre-Druissi (2003)
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- Official website for John Crowley
- Science Fiction Weekly interview with John Crowley
- Bookslut review of several John Crowley novels
- Strange Words review of Engine Summer
- Reading Guide for Little, Big
- Spike Magazine review of Little, Big
- Strange Horizons review of Ægypt
- The Village Voice review of Dæmonomania
- Reading Guide for The Translator
- Salon.com review of The Translator
- The Village Voice review of The Translator
- Reading Guide for Novelties & Souveniers
- SciFi.com review of Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land
- Salon.com review of Lord Byron's Novel
- WashingtonPost.com review of Lord Bryon's Novel
- The New York Times review of Lord Byron's Novel
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About the Author:
John Crowley was born in 1942 in Presque Island, Maine. He studied at Indiana University. Besides writing science fiction, fantasy and mainstream fiction has a second career as a documentary film writer. He has worked in films and television, writing scripts for short films and documentaries, many historical documentaries for public television; his work has received numerous awards and has been shown at the New York Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, and many others.
Crowley's correspondence with literary critic Harold Bloom, and their mutual appreciation, led in 1993 to Crowley taking up a post at Yale University, where he began teaching courses in Utopian fiction, fiction writing, and screenplay writing.
He lives in the hills above the Connecticut River in northern Massachusetts with his wife and twin daughters.