Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, by John Crowley

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.”

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2 Comments

Filed under Fiction -- historical

2 responses to “Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, by John Crowley

  1. Katrina

    Wow. That sounds wonderful. I’ll have to look for it.

    Did you read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the Adventure in Research book that sparked Da Vinci Code? I’m reading it now (because my book club is doing Da Vinci, but ironically it turns out I won’t be there to discuss it). It’s interesting, but the authors draw some pretty remarkable conclusions based (if so-and-so and so-and-so both visited the same little town in France and had Cathar leanings, obviously they were members of a secret society!).

  2. TrudyJ

    I think you’d enjoy it … check it out!

    I haven’t read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, although even pre-DVC I had read essays and articles about the author’s conclusions.

    One of the things that worries me about Adventures in Research is that when I read that type of book that’s written in an area I know something about (like DVC, because I do know a lot about Jesus, the gospels, and the early church) I can see right away how shoddy the research is. If I knew that much about the subjects of all these other literary adventures I enjoy so much, would I be just as disillusioned??

    I guess I’ll wait for a Byron expert to come along and tell me how Crowley stacks up. I think the next novel I write is going to be sort of an Adventure in Research, actually, so it’s something I give a lot of thought to.

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