There’s a subgenre of fiction that could best be described as “adventures in research,” which almost always hooks me at first glance. Basic plot of an Adventure in Research — a scholar, or a pair or small group of scholars, discovers an ancient and forgotten manuscript, or clues that point to the possibility of an ancient and forgotten manuscript, or a historical mystery somehow linked to an ancient manuscript. They then drop everything and run around the world searching for it, piecing together the clues to a discovery that will revolutionize literature, or theology, or history itself. Along the way the scholars usually have to work out their own relationship and/or resolve some personal issues.Adventures in Research novels range from the wildly successful and critically acclaimed Possession by A.S. Byatt (one of my personal favourites) to the wildly successful and critically derided Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (not one of my personal favourites) and also include such gems as the vastly under-appreciated Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt (probably in my all-time Top Ten favourite books). The genre often pleases me with books that are relatively good though not great (Chasing Shakespeares, by Sarah Smith, or Ex Libris by Ross King) and sometimes disappoints me with books that simply don’t deliver (Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian was one such for me).
With all this in mind (and despite my ingrained prejudice against male authors), Lord Byron’s Novel was an easy sell for me when I picked it up in the library the other day. I had heard nothing about the book nor read anything else by John Crowley, but I was immediately hooked by the premise: notes to a previously unknown Byron novel, annotated by his estranged daughter, are discovered — but where is the novel itself?
This was definitely one of the most successful Adventures in Research I have read in a long time, even though there was much less chasing-the-manuscript-across-the-capitals-of-Europe than one generally expects in such a novel.
There are really three stories here: Byron’s actual “lost novel” takes up most of the pages, and Crowley has done a wonderful job of creating the sort of gothic novel Lord Byron might actually have written, gloriously overwritten and full of Romantic punctuation and italics. The chapter notes give us a glimpse into the life and mind of his daughter Ada, who writes her commentary on the novel while dying of cancer and uses the experience to work through her complex feelings about her famous father. Finally, the researcher on the case explores not just the quest for Lord Byron’s novel but also her own relationship with an estranged father through a series of emails to her father and her partner.
All three stories are vivid and compelling and kept me not just turning pages but also thinking. Crowley is brilliant with language, too — from his ability to capture a Byronic narrative voice, to his nuanced appreciation for the different voices people use in email communication.
Here’s a favourite quote from the novel: it occurs in a letter to the scholar, Alex, from her mother. It encapsulates something I’d never put into words before, but that as soon as I read it I thought, “That’s absolutely true!” — which is a gem to find in an already wonderful work of fiction:
“People say that troubles and grief can make you strong, but I don’t believe it — I think that love and happiness make you strong, they feed you and wrap your soul in healthy tissue…so you can stand things, and abide the cold.”