Reading The Great Night is like having a dream that stays in your head long after you wake up. It’s emphatically not a romance. I wouldn’t even say it has strong romantic elements, even though it involves human relationships including romantic ones. But if you are looking for a break from romance, and you want to try something thoughtful and lyrical and lovely that deals with loss and mystery, give this book a shot.
The Great Night is very loosely based on Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. On Midsummer’s Eve, in 2008, various people wander into Buena Vista Park in San Francisco and find themselves caught up in the world of Faerie. Here’s the cast of characters, most of whom are reeling from something:
The Mortal Lovers are all reeling from breakups (or, in one case, a lover’s suicide). They are Will, Molly, and Henry. As the story continues, we learn about the other losses that these people have experienced in their pasts that continue to affect them.
The Faeries are led by Titania, who is reeling from the death of one of her changelings and from her husband’s abandonment. She released Puck from her control, even though she knows he will destroy her and all her court. Turns out Puck is reeling from some losses of his own and is bent on revenge against Titania.
The Players consist of a group of homeless people led by Huff. He wants to make a musical version of Soylent Green which he hopes will convince people that the homeless people of San Francisco are being eaten. Huff has become convinced of this because he’s noticed there are fewer homeless people around lately and more food being given away. He suspects some recycling is going on.
Huff is the creator of the funniest lines and the most moving lines, sometimes simultaneously, as when he rallies his theater group to use the power of art to defeat Puck, who he thinks is the Mayor of San Francisco:
“Everybody thinks, I am in his power, and everybody says, There’s nothing I can do about how handsome he is or his negligent attitude towards the schools or his policy of enforced cannibalism!”
This is a book that feels like a dream, and when I finished reading it, it took me a while to feel awake again. First of all, neither we nor the characters know what is glamour and what is not. Secondly, everyone has secrets and some are never revealed, so it’s a whole world of hidden treasures and nightmares. Thirdly, many of the characters have reason to doubt their sanity. Fourthly, part way into the book several of the characters get extremely drunk on Faerie wine. The book is told in third person from the point of view of several different characters and by the time we’re getting the story from a mentally ill, traumatized drunk person who’s been glamoured, it’s as dreamlike as it can be and still make sense – and the story does make a lot of sense in a linear way. It’s actually going somewhere, not just rambling in a directionless set of drunken vignettes.
The other reason the book fells dreamlike is in its mix of lyrical, fantastical, and mundane language. Here’s a snippet from the moment when Will, who works with tress, suddenly realizes that he doesn’t recognize what kinds of trees are growing around him (he also notices that the tress are decorated with bells and ribbons):
He bent down to touch a bell. It sounded a high, vibrating note that ticked his ear. There was something about the tickle in his ear that dispelled the thought that he might be dreaming even as it came to him; the bell sounded a note so irritating he couldn’t imagine ever sleeping through it, and discomfort from the noise felt real in the way that a sharp, cruel pinch feels real. There was something interesting about these trees that went beyond just how strange looking they were, or that they were hidden in a secret dell, something so interesting it made him forget all about his party and his lost shoe, and it shamed him, a little, that he could not place what that was exactly until he crushed a bit of leaf and smelled the familiar odor, cinnamon and pepper, on his fingers.
“Shit!” he said to the crushed-up leaf, and then “Shit!” again to the trees all around him, and “Shit!” to the worried moon.
By using this fantastical imagery combined with gritty details (the specific smells, for instance), the book is able to explore the emotional impact of loss in all kinds of ways. Chapter 3, in which Titania’s changeling son becomes terribly ill, is absolutely devastating. This is a book about loss – the loss of relationships, loss of children and parents and siblings, loss of the past, and loss of innocence. It’s not a nihilistic book. Several characters are shown to have a hope of healing and happiness. But things do not end well for everyone and in almost every case they end ambiguously. If you are assiduously avoiding emotional triggers, be aware that this book has an awful lot of them. If your trigger is fear of being devoured by sharks, you’re safe here – otherwise, probably better brace yourself.
One thing that may be of interest to romance readers is the way sex is talked about in the book. There’s a lot of sex, but most of it isn’t very erotic. It’s as though people are compelled to have sex – not necessarily because of rape but because of their bodies and hang-ups and compulsions. One of the most outrageously bizarre moments in the book describes a man being attacked by flying vaginas. I can’t possibly explain this. You’d have to be there. Somehow this passage manages to be horrifying, gross, and funny at the same time. I’d think it’s safe to say that this book is not for the squeamish. What I admire about that scene (and several other moments in the book) is that while I wouldn’t characterize the mood of the book as funny, it has a strong sense of the ridiculous in life, and that element of humor keeps things from being overwhelmingly dark or repugnant.
This book made me feel sad but not depressed or angry. There was just enough hope contained within its last few pages to keep me from feeling depressed – just enough sweetness to make it bittersweet instead of bitter. I feel like I’ll be processing this book for a long time. To be honest, I don’t think I know how I feel about it except that it was beautifully written and I feel like I’m still dreaming it. In a way, reading this book about faerie enchantment is very much like being enchanted – you sort of wish you hadn’t entered the Hill, which is strange and scary and full of loss, but it's also full of so much beauty that you never want to leave.