Mystery Books for Sale

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by Paul La Farge
Penguin, March 2017
400 pages
ISBN: 1101981083

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

When I was a teenager, I read most of H.P. Lovecraft's books, and loved them. I haven't read anything by him since, but I remember the feeling of awe and was really looking forward to reading THE NIGHT OCEAN, which promised to bring back some of that amazement at a totally unique style. Unfortunately, I found myself less than thoroughly entranced.

Although it is pure fiction, the book reads like a biography. There are a lot of details that seem unnecessary, and the narrative thrust is slow and confusing. Lots and lots of side characters intrude, as they might in a biography, but none of them have a distinct enough personality developed for the reader to remember them. Their significance fades away. The main characters of the story-within-a-story are H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Barlow, a teen with whom Lovecraft may or may not have had a homosexual affair, and L.C. Spinks, a Canadian fan who figures prominently in a hoax. The surrounding story involves Charlie, who disappears after perhaps falling for Spinx' hoax, and his wife, Marina Willett, who attempts to find out what happened to Charlie and, therefore, what happened between Lovecraft and Barlow in the 30s.

The book is an enigma, leaving the reader almost as clueless about what really happened at either level of the plot at the end as at the beginning. There are lies, misrepresentations, impersonations, and yes, alternative facts. It all centers around a purported book, The Erotonomicon, that might have been Lovecraft's diary about his relationship with Barlow. At every point in the THE NIGHT OCEAN, there is a story line that might or might not be true and several characters who either believe or don't believe in the reality of the plot.

There's a great deal of disorientation in reading this book, and that mirrors the experience of reading a work by Lovecraft. Whether this appeals to you or not will determine whether you find this book a masterpiece, as many have, or a disappointment, as I did.

Sharon Mensing is the Head of School of Emerald Mountain School, an independent school in the mountains of Colorado, where she lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, March 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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