Tuesday, May 13, 2008

the night journal

I remember when this book was published, fairly recently, and remembered seeing it winning awards for fiction written by Western women. There is a certain genre that much of this stuff set in New Mexico conforms to, which I don’t much like, so while I didn’t avoid the book, I didn’t set out to read it either—it was loaned to me by someone who was reading it for a book club. It had more depth than a flat-out whodunit?, though it was also plotted craftily enough to accomplish that mode as well. Anyone familiar with The DaVinci Code will realize that people, more than ever, are hungry for a book that has investigators on the look-out for historical clues to controversial topics, and that’s the niche this book fills—undoubtedly why it’s on the book club circuit. I’m not trying to put it down—I think it was well-written and undoubtedly took a lot of effort.

The Night Journal reminded me of a lot of things, not least of which my time at the Center for Southwest Research where, had Hannah Bass’ diary actually existed, we might well have it in our manuscript collection or at least copies of it in the Anderson Reading Room. I was a bit disturbed not to see any names I recognized in the acknowledgements section of the book. It was set in Pecos and Las Vegas, NM, though there is a foray to the Maxwell Museum on the UNM campus (disappointingly dry, I’m afraid), so that could explain the lack of resources from CSWR. Still, I took much of the environs of the book for granted—kivas, Spanish-language newspapers like La Herencia, Harvey girls, sanatoriums, our tri-cultural state—that others might have found much more puzzling and new.

But I should back up and explain that the book is set both in present-day and late nineteenth-century New Mexico, with trips to Texas and Mexico. It makes up a primary source, the journals of Hannah Bass, ex-Harvey girl who married Elliott Bass, railroad engineer and Mormon massacre survivor. Switching back and forth between Hannah’s life and the present-day action is a worn technique that involves a lot of use of fake documents, much as Phantom of the Opera (and The Woman in White) did before it, all the way back to Mysteries of Udolpho and the oldest Gothic stories. I wouldn’t argue The Night Journal is Gothic, though. It’s not really a historical novel, nor a straight mystery nor a romance. It has elements of all—it’s just kind of an emotional journey novel.

If the Broome family suffered from self-destructive males, the Bass family suffers from self-destructive females. That is perhaps the best aspect of The Night Journal: because of its ability to move omnisciently through characters’ minds and back in time through the journals and other documents, it shows the cumulative effect of one generation’s sins on another, and another, and another . . . Strangely this is a theme I wrote about in the third radio play I wrote, also set in New Mexico, set somewhat later, though. Moving between past and present requires a delicate balance, but if done well can give the story lots of momentum. I was from the first afraid I would find the present-day story boring in comparison to the past (as I did in Possession) but actually, in the last quarter of the book, the mystery deepened and the potential romance did, too, so that I was equally interested in both. That’s good pacing . (Of course both main love affairs were fairly predictable, but with so many storylines, I suppose there wasn’t much room for subtlety.)

The journals themselves are well-researched and never sound like a collection of knowledge flung at us to let us know the author has researched (unlike a passage about dialysis that the main present-day character, Meg, spouts in the middle of the book). The journals begin on an excellent note from the plotting perspective: a train derailment. Incidents continue to escalate, including the discovery of a skeleton in Pecos (it’s like a Stevie Davies novel!), and the last twist, though I saw it coming, was nevertheless a very good one. I don’t want to reveal too much because the twists really do make the book.

New Mexico is, for many characters in the book, a liberating place of contrastive and sublime natural beauty. I always feel a bit annoyed with this attitude, probably because I take my home state for granted and just can’t see it from the perspective of a non-native. For Hannah I think I can understand the feeling, as it does represent liberation and opportunity (though she does seem a bit Scarlett O’Hara-in-the-sequel-like sometimes). For Meg, I understand it less so. I wonder if many people will be able to believe in Meg or if they will just find her too pathetic? For my part I empathize with her, but my favorite character was probably Jim Layton, who did feel real. I also like Vicente Morales and Elliott Bass. The romance between Hannah and Elliott was unfortunately rather cursory. I wish there had been a little more time spent on that. Minor characters like Hector Romero, Nina Bass, and Jake Montoya felt like types, though I recognize how difficult it is to invest characters with that little “screen time” as it were with depth.

The book desperately wanted me to dredge up a lot of sympathy for Bassie, especially in the excruciating last few pages (was that really necessary?) but I found it hard to do. The author spent most of the book making her as unlikeable as possible, putting Meg through hell and most of the other characters as well, and on occasion this can work—Georgie in The Magnificent Ambersons comes to mind—but I still thought she was too loud for life. She belonged with some of Balzac’s characters. For my part, I really wanted Jim and Meg to succeed. I won’t say too much about them, either, but I was rather disappointed at the colorless way the author ended them.

Overall it was an enjoyable read with quite a few twists I didn’t see coming (and admittedly it was sometimes hard to put down). The ideas behind it are wonderfully rich for a writer and a reader, and for the most part it’s executed well—a good lesson in suspense and moving back and forth between present-day and historical past.

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