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Lord Byron's Novel cover Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley

William Morrow hardcover - Copyright 2005
465 pages
Cover art: David Caspar Friedrich, "Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog" (c. 1817)

Book reviewed July 2005

Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          In 1816, while vacationing in Switzerland, famed English romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley passed a fateful evening with a group of friends reading ghost stories out loud.  When Byron suggested they all try to write their own suspense stories, Shelley's wife Mary Shelley proceeded to write Frankenstein, considered by many the first modern science fiction novel, and Dr. John Polidori expanded a short fragment of Byron's into The Vampyre, one of the earliest vampire stories in the English language, predating and perhaps inspiring Bram Stoker's Dracula.  Neither of the two renowned poets, however, created any full-length work.

Or did they?  The premise of John Crowley's fascinating new book, Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land is that Byron was moved to write his own prose novel.  After his death, the manuscript of the novel fell into the hands of his only legitimate child, Ada Byron (Countess of Lovelace by marriage), whom Byron knew only as an infant.  Ada grew up to be a mathematician and friend of Charles Babbage, and her real-life claim to fame is that she created a set of instructions for Babbage's proposed "analytical engine," arguably the first computer program ever written.  Crowley imagines that Ada encrypted Byron's manuscript into a numeric cipher to preserve it from her mother, Byron's bitter wife, who had his unpublished papers burned after his death.  A group of modern-day feminists researching Ada's life stumbles upon the encoded manuscript, and they grow gradually more astonished as they realize what they have.

Lord Byron' Novel: The Evening Land is a remarkable effort, but do not expect a horror story like Frankenstein or The VampyreThe Evening Land uses a few fantastic elements, including the brief appearance of a zombie, to give portions of the novel a gothic tone; however the fantastic elements in the end prove, a bit disappointingly, unimportant to the story, so I cannot label the novel fantasy or horror.  Yet it should still be of great interest to genre readers, who are familiar with Crowley from such noted science fiction and fantasy works as Engine Summer and Little, Big.

Lord Byron's Novel alternates between three threads: (1) the eponymous lost novel, The Evening Land, which tells of Ali, a proud young man torn from his Albanian home and thrust by his cruel father into British noble society; (2) notes to Ali's story by Byron's daughter Ada, written shortly before her death in 1852, and becoming increasingly disjointed as her health fails; and (3) the e-mails and letters of Alexandra "Smith" Novak, which track her discovery of the lost Byron manuscript and how she deciphers it with the help of her lesbian partner, a mathematician, and her estranged father, a Byron scholar and controversial filmmaker living in exile (think Roman Polanski).

Byron's make-believe novel occupies over half the book, making it an elaborate story within a story.  This story-within-story structure has become common, but few authors are able to use it as effectively as Crowley.  The interior story is a wonderfully entertaining tale standing on its own, but the outside framework makes it even more rewarding.

The Evening Land begins with a somnambulant Ali waking to discover his murdered father.  Through a series of flashbacks, we then learn why Ali has little reason to mourn his father's death, even if Ali did not kill him, or at least doesn't remember killing him.  Ali was raised as an orphan, not knowing that he is the bastard son of an unscrupulous English nobleman, known as "Satan" to both friend and foe.  "Satan" finally comes to collect Ali as a young man, not from any genuine interest in his son, but simply because he needs a male heir in order to retain what is left of his wife's estate.  He also hopes to use Ali as a means of securing a prospective daughter-in-law's fortune.  To these ends, he uncaringly disrupts Ali's love for a fellow orphan in Albania and then for a classmate's sister in England, neither wealthy enough to suit the father's purposes.

The narrative of The Evening Land is semibiographical (or semiautobiographical, depending on your suspension of disbelief), closely paralleling Byron's scandalous real life, including his love for his half-sister, his combative relationship with his father, his British schooling, his involvement in the Italian revolutionary movement, his failed marriage, and his separation from his daughter.  (One difference, however, is that Byron never actually traveled as far as the "Evening Land" of the Western Hemisphere.)  Crowley plainly feels a fondness for Byron, without ignoring his obvious character flaws.  But Ali's story within a story makes for absorbing reading even if you know little of Byron and even if, like me, you don't much grok poetry.

Crowley delights in Byron's romantic style, blending stilted and formal early Nineteenth Century language with informal touches he could not get away with today, such as addressing the reader directly.  In one marvelous passage, for instance, the author expresses regret at the choices the protagonist Ali is making, and wishes that he could warn him.

To my untrained eye, Crowley emulates Byron very well But if you want a more educated opinion, I'll let you choose between Christopher Benfey, who wrote in the New York Times that The Evening Land is "not a convincing imitation of Byron," and Ron Charles of the Washington Post, who says it is such "a miraculous imitation of Byron's style" that he wonders if Crowley really did find a lost Byron manuscript.

Crowley has great fun with Byron's satiric tone and his disdain for British social institutions, gently mocking all aspects of genteel society.  Among its many targets, the Byron narrative repeatedly pokes fun of artists, including Byron himself (and thus, by extension, Crowley himself).  As a lawyer, I especially liked the Dickensian courtroom scene.  As Ali stands accused of his father's murder, his barrister assures him that "the truth is not material," and manages to make the trial seem a gross injustice even as it reaches the correct result:

The barrister sprang to his feet, to have the words struck from the record, as being the merest hearsay, and according to the new rules of evidence, inadmissible - he asked that the Judge instruct the Jury to erase all such hearsay from their minds as though they had not heard it, whereupon the Jury looked upon one another as though the Court were mad, to ask such a thing.

As good as the Byron narrative is, the framework of present-day e-mails between Smith, her father, and her partner Thea make the novel even better.  These e-mails are a delightful contrast to most books, where people writing letters always seem to know they are in a novel, and so gloss over everything else in their lives in two sentences so they can spend two pages on the things that are important to the plot.  Smith, her father, and Thea give us background we need about Byron and other information necessary to advance the story, yet their correspondence never feels contrived.  They write like real people, and three different people at that.  For instance, Smith writes and proofreads her e-mails carefully, while Thea taps hers out in a single rush without punctuation.  (1/2 the people I no rite emails like that ythehell do they do that I cant tell where 1 sentence ends and the next thing I no Im 1/2way into the next sentence when I thot I was still in the last 5 seconds they save skipping punctuation and 0 seconds they save spelling words rong cost me 5 minutes trying to figure out wtf there saying)

Crowley develops these characters amazingly deftly, given the limitations of the e-mail only format.  Through these e-mails, we see Smith reconnect with the father she has never known.  Her separation from her father is one of many fascinating similarities between Smith and Byron's daughter Ada.  The process of deciphering Ada's encoded manuscript (from a Vigenère cipher, for you code aficionados) is entertaining as well, making the whole story perhaps also a sly parody of The Da Vinci Code.

          Ada's notes to the Byron manuscript are somewhat less effective, but perhaps necessary to underscore the parallels between Ada in the Nineteenth Century and Smith in the present day.  Through Ada's eyes, we see how Byron's novel is on one level a love letter to his lost daughter.  In turn, Crowley's novel is in the end the story of the sad estrangement between a father and daughter, and the precious opportunities for redemption we have today that earlier ages did not afford.
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Copyright © 2005 Aaron Hughes

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