Note: This review is spoilery. I can’t begin to discuss The Night Ocean without giving away things about the plot. I don’t think it’s a problem since, if you decide to read it, you probably won’t remember what I said once you wade into the swamp, but if you’re a spoiler-phobe, then you need to go away right now.
I finished this book last night and thought, “Buh?” I didn’t begin to know what to make of it, and it wasn’t anything like I was expecting. However since that latter response isn’t a fair one by which to judge a book, let’s toss it out and get back to the Buh? part. There is no good way to categorize The Night Ocean. It’s, in large part, a mystery written by a Marina Willet, whose husband has seemingly committed suicide. She is trying to make sense of the events that led up to him disappearing from the mental hospital he was in and apparently walking into a lake to drown himself.
Charlie, the husband, is a writer who has recently published a book about H. P. Lovecraft, and the young, gay fan with whom he lived for several months. I confess I did some googling about this, and found that Robert Barlow did indeed exist, and Lovecraft did live with him and his family for a short time. Barlow became Lovecraft’s literary executor after the older man’s death. Opinion seems divided on whether there was any sort of romantic or sexual relationship between Lovecraft and the young man, but that’s not really important here. What is important are the layers of contradictory history that are peeled back during the course of the novel.
There exists (possibly really, possibly not) a book entitled The Erotonomicon, purported to be the erotic diary of Lovecraft, detailing not only his affair with Barlow, but his sexual encounters with other young men. When Charlie discovers it, he believes it really is Lovecraft’s diary. But then, when he tracks down Barlow, who was supposed to have committed suicide years earlier, he learns that Barlow was the author of the book. Yes, it’s getting sticky now.
But when Charlie publishes his book, it immediately comes under attack and Charlie begins to unravel which is why he ends up in a mental hospital. Marina, in attempting to find out the truth, discovers that the man Charlie thought was Barlow was… well he’s Barlow, but he’s also someone else. Got that? No, I didn’t either, not really. And the story she hears about this man’s life… is it true? Is it as much a lie as what he told Charlie, and was all that in fact a lie as well or was there some greater truth?
You have to be patient with this book because it rambles and digresses, and there are way too many people who are not what they seem to be. And there’s no clear protagonist, so things can get really confusing. But if you stick it out, you may find yourself enjoying it. Honestly if I hadn’t I’d have bailed. Yes, I was often impatient with it, but I kept on reading, and I came out of it thinking that it had been worth my time. No, I didn’t love it, but I did like it, and if I was feeling a little more generous I’d have bumped it up to four stars. But it’s not something I’ll read again, and I found it almost too oblique to take much pleasure in it.