24. The School of Night by Louis Bayard
I've been talking for almost a year about how much I wanted to read this book. But the real truth is-I wanted to read half of this book.
As soon as I heard Bayard mention the words, "school of night," "sixteenth century," and "Thomas Harriot," I was in. Even though, "mystery," "thriller," and "present-day Washington D.C.," were not at all what I wanted to read.
Bayard writes two narratives here, in two very different stylistic voices. I won't pretend that I don't have a clear preference.
One is the story of present day scholar Henry Cavendish, a screw-up ne'er-do-well, recently named executor of his best friend's estate. Best friend and fellow scholar Alonso threw himself into the Potomac. At the funeral, Henry is approached by a skullduggery type named Bernard, who wants the valuable sixteenth century manuscript that Alonso "borrowed" before his death. What is this manuscript, what does it mean, and should Henry give it to Bernard for copious amounts of moolah?
The other story is that of Thomas Harriot, enigmatic sixteenth century naturalist and scientist, and Bayard posits, alchemist and atheist. Bayard takes on the story of Harriot's later years, secluded on the Earl of Northumerland's estate, as he recollects earlier encounters with Marlowe and Raleigh. A fictional character, Margaret, a maid in Harriot's household who becomes his partner in science and ultimately lover, brings a fresh perspective to the scene, that of ordinary Rennaissance women, who maybe longed for something more. The voice in this part of the story is unique, undulating, experimental. It fits the mysterious nature of Harriot and Margaret's experiments and their strange attraction to one another. The odd and unbelievable events that bind together this pair make sense in the context of this voice and are more credible from the distance of four centuries.
The odd and unbelievable events that come to bind Henry Cavendish and his erstwhile paramour Clarissa, however, I found less believable. The narrative, told from Henry's point of view, is nothing special and the events predictably melodramatic. It feels like Bayard brings in every aspect of every thriller ever, and inadvertently manages to make it comically anticlimactic. I was surprised at none of the twists or turns, save the last, which was merely absurd. The only thematic relevance was a parallel with the other story, which I obviously found infinitely more engrossing.
I realize Bayard is a thriller writer, though I haven't read any of his other books. I wish he would throw aside the genre and write the sweeping historical novel of ideas that I suspect he is capable of. Some of the Harriot sequences were excitingly similar to Wolf Hall, and a man with that kind of talent shouldn't waste himself on today's "realistic genre*" fiction.
*When I say, "realistic genre," I am talking about Litlove's definition of genre as books that do not challenge one's comfort zone. The present-day sections of this novel follow current writing-class conventions; first person narrator, short sentences, small words, plot twists that come fast and often, constant action. That will hold interest and is a good plan to stick to for general reader satisfaction-but I think Bayard can defy convention and still be successful.