Morrow, 2005, $25.95
reviewed in Interzone 199, August 2005
One never approaches a novel by John Crowley with works by other authors in mind. But the recreation of a novel by a historical character surely recalls The Iron Heel, Adolf Hitler’s fantasy novel as concocted by Norman Spinrad; a work in which annotations by another hand shift the perspective has been employed in Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov and House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski; a story partly told in the exchange of emails by academics is a feature of Ash by Mary Gentle. I could go on. But the moment you start reading Lord Byron’s Novel all such comparisons fall away. He has managed to create out of seeming well-trodden territory a book that is, as ever with Crowley, sui generis.
Let us begin, as we must, with Lord Byron’s novel itself. Without being an expert on Byron it is impossible to say how precise Crowley’s ventriloquism is, but he has caught dashing high romanticism perfectly. This is pure Gothick, a highly coloured tale of zombies and doppelgangers, of gloomy Scottish castles and exotic foreign shores, of escapes from death, of lost loves, of dramatic reversals of fortune. Our hero, Ali, the Albanian bastard of an English milord who delights in his villainy, is falsely accused of his father’s murder, rescued by smugglers, caught up in Wellington’s war in Spain, returns to London high society, is tricked into a loveless marriage, pursued by a doppelganger, and finally after a duel is forced to flee to the continent.
After Byron’s death, the manuscript finds its way back to England and into the hands of his daughter, Ada Lovelace. She destroys it to suit the wishes of her mother, but only after encoding it in proto-computer code for Babbage’s Analytical Engine. In the last weeks of her life, she also annotates the novel, notes which chart both her decline and her relationship with the father she was never allowed to know.
Around this is an exchange of emails involving the researcher who discovers the papers, her lesbian lover who cracks the code, and her estranged father who edits the newly discovered novel. Her father is a once-renowned Byron scholar that she hasn’t seen since he fled justice after raping a young girl, and in their rediscovered relationship the story of Byron and Ada is subtly mirrored and even more subtly resolved.Without doubt the best novel of the year. Yet, like all of Crowley’s books over the last 20 years, it will probably not be published here. Tragic!