BOOK: The School of Night by Louis Bayard (2011)

In the late 16th century, a group of England’s greatest minds were rumored to have gotten together and formed a secret club, the School of Night (which I’ve also heard called “The School of Atheism,” by the way).  They’d get together periodically in out-of-the-way locations and spend hours debating each other about God, science, politics, and alchemy — all things that, in public discourse, carried with them the threat of imprisonment.  Or worse.

Three of those minds were poet Walter Raleigh (spelled “Ralegh” in this book, for reasons explained by the main character), Christopher Marlowe, and lesser-known/appreciated astronomer and physicist Thomas Harriot (who discovered both gravity and Halley’s Comet long before they were “officially” found).

That’s the back story of this novel.  The plot, though, is half set in that time, focusing on Harriot’s love affair with his housekeeper-cum-lab-assistant, and half in the modern-day, where an expert on Ralegh begins a dangerous quest to find first a missing document, and then a mysterious buried treasure.

The modern-day story begins at a funeral, where Elizabethan scholar, aforementioned Ralegh expert, and disgraced professor Henry Cavendish is mourning the sudden suicide of an old college chum, the larger-than-life Alonzo Wax, well-known rare book/document collector and overall rogue.  After the service, Henry is approached by an elderly rival collector named Bernard Styles, who claims to have loaned Wax a valuable document and wants Henry, as Wax’s executor, to find and return it.

At first, Henry isn’t interested.  But when Styles offers to pay him a small fortune and then informs him the document is a letter written by Walter Ralegh that may confirm the existence of the School of Night, Henry can’t resist.  A similar document he’d discovered himself years ago was later found to be a fake, costing him his prestigious career.  And now — a potentially real letter from Ralegh?  He has to know.  So, despite his wariness of the semi-sinister-seeming Styles, Henry accepts the gig and promises to be in touch.

It doesn’t take Henry long to find the letter, and its discovery, along with the ones that follow, quickly turn the whole scenario on its ear.  When he meets the mysterious Clarissa Dale, a young woman who both knew Wax and claims to be having visions of Harriot that may or may not be relevant to the letter’s contents, he finds himself instantly attracted to her and offers to let her help (never a wise move, sir, thinking with your naughty bits).  Examining the document together, though, they do more than confirm its origin — they also find on it a coded map that purports to lead to a buried treasure.  Knowing Harriot had spent much of his life experimenting with alchemy, their immediate assumption is that the treasure will consist of heaps of gold.

But someone else is after the treasure too: Bernard Styles.  And when the bodies start piling up, it becomes clear he’s no old geezer with a love for dusty old poetry.  Soon Henry and Clarissa are in the race of their lives — a race FOR their lives.  Who will get to the treasure first?

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, we’re also being told the story of Harriot’s alchemy experiments and growing relationship with a woman named Margaret, who begins as his housekeeper and ends as the love of his life.  Somehow, obviously, the letter from Ralegh will relate to both Harriot and Margaret — but how?

I’m a huge fan of Louis Bayard’s previous novels, all of which take a person from history or classic fiction and weave a new tale around them (Mr. Timothy is about Tiny Tim, The Pale Blue Eye about a young Sherlock Holmes, and The Black Tower about the dauphin (the ten year-old son of King Louis XVI).  So, naturally, I was incredibly excited to find he’d published a new book, and one that, this time, would combine a historical yarn with a storyline set in the present day, and be about codes and treasure maps and puzzles to boot!

But while these things all sound great in theory, and while I found the book engaging for the first 2/3rds or so, I was really disappointed (not to mention confused) by the ending.  The two stories never come together all that clearly, as it turns out, and unfortunately, the modern-day treasure hunt ended up not being terrible creative or exciting.  Plus, this stuff with Clarissa and her “visions”?  Where did that come from, Bayard?  And what, precisely, was the point of it?  I am lost.

Definitely wary of recommending this one, but I couldn’t find a single other negative review of it anywhere else on the web, so maybe I’m just plain wrong.  It happens.  I confess I got frustrated and somewhat bored by the end and it’s entirely possible I ended up skimming through something that would’ve better explained the overlay of the two tales, something that may have cost me the novel as a whole.  But compared to the incredible creativity, fascinating historical information, and intelligent writing of others I’ve read, this is definitely Bayard’s weakest work to date.  Here’s hoping it’s not the start of a trend.

Stick to the past, sir.  I don’t think the present is your strength. (And man, how I wish this novel had just been about the School of Night itself — now THAT would’ve been riveting!)


[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]


One Response to “BOOK: The School of Night by Louis Bayard (2011)”

  1. RogerBW Says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to be “wrong” for not liking a book. (Or “right”.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: