The School of Night — by Greg


There are pivotal moments in Louis Bayard’s glorious novel, The School Of Night, that hinge on the archaic, pitch-dark machinations of alchemy. No small wonder, I suppose, as Bayard is himself a bit of an alchemist (perhaps conjurer is a more suitable term), capable of transporting readers to foregone ages with an almost supernatural deftness.
     I first became aware of Bayard’s work with 2003’s Mr. Timothy, an incandescently beautiful (and heart-wrenching) book detailing the later-day exploits of Dickens’ Tiny Tim. Bayard’s next two books, stunning both, are The Pale, Blue Eye (which follows a young Edgar Allen Poe solving an arcane and terrible mystery while attending West Point) and The Black Tower (in which Restoration era Paris is brought vividly to life as the fate of Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI’s long-lost son is relentlessly pursued).
     The School Of Night employs a two-tier narrative: one thread takes place in modern times following a group of Elizabethan collectors and scholars as they try to piece together a mystery involving an invaluable long-lost letter, a hidden treasure and the legacy of a secret cabal of luminaries called the School of Night. The other plot line unspools in 1603 as one of the School’s founding members, Thomas Harriot, a genius whose name has been almost forgotten in the mists of history, dabbles in matters both scientific and of the heart. Bayard does much to resurrect Harriot and his legacy, along the way providing a powerful love story that, through interweaving chapters, crashes headfirst into the story’s modern-day plot lines.
To discuss more of the plot would be a terrible disservice. Best to let readers simply revel in one twist and turn after another. Know that Bayard handles the modern tale masterfully, believably and with a level of humor sadly missing from most thrillers. And what of Bayard’s Elizabethan passages, the ones involving Harriot? They are, simply put, transcendent. Bayard displays not a single weakness as a writer, but if he has one strength that shines above the others (and just about any other modern writer I can think of) it is this: His ability to summon long-lost historical time periods with uncanny immediacy. From the pitch-perfect cadence of the dialogue to every sparkling flourish of sight, sound and smell, Bayard is able to almost corporally transport readers through the veils of time. You are there. You feel it.
Perhaps there is no better example than late in the book (after most of the plot threads have already been woven tightly together) when Bayard, by way of the lovelorn Harriot, leads us on a journey through a plague-choked London that is as harrowing as anything he has ever written. Grim, disturbing, and ultimately poignant, the scene — like all of Bayard’s output — is a virtuosic performance.
The School of Night — thrilling, funny, touching and sometimes heartbreaking — firmly cements Bayard’s status among our finest novelists.

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