Monday, 25 February 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee (2016)


In his sweeping epic story about the fictional Lillet Berne, an American orphan, international circus performer, Parisian courtesan, Empress’ maid and lauded operatic diva, Alexander Chee comes close to capturing the feelings of opera in novel form. For better and for worse.


The Queen of the Night (2016) begins in 1882. A star soprano is offered a role in an original opera, only to find that the libretto is based on the secrets of her own early life. Who has betrayed her? Is it a trap? How can she escape her fate?

The novel is dramatic and sumptuously costumed. The fates of its characters play out against a backdrop of war and political intrigue, as the plot cycles through victories and tragedies, farfetched as they are entertaining.

Alexander Chee (1967- )
On the flipside, the bad bits (whisper it!) of opera are there too—the thought that the work could have done with a good edit, the emotional detachment you can feel from characters larger than life who make questionable choices, even if their music brings you to tears.

One of the strangest things about the experience of reading the novel was that I wasn’t sure whom it was really for. Opera buffs may delight in the cameos of characters such as Giuseppe and Giuseppina Verdi and Pauline Viardot, but Chee also spends pages rehashing the plots of some of the world’s most famous operas for the uninitiated. I wanted more of Lillet’s emotions while she was singing (something that was frequently skipped over) and less dispassionate reporting of information. A small mistake about ballet positions also made me questions some of the facts I was getting.

As a heroine, Lillet is smart and strong, physically and emotionally, but the theme of fate can make her appear passive. She’s passed from master to master, and often used as a pawn. Adding to this is the one-note approach to sex scenes in the novel. Lovemaking is always rushed and brutal in the world Chee has imagined, one reason it’s hard to fathom why Lillet falls for the man she loves, who doesn’t seem markedly different from all the others.

On the other hand, Chee’s descriptions of jewels, gowns and settings are glittering. Every page had a detail I enjoyed, even if, if this had been an opera, I’d have been flicking to my programme to check the running time.

Which novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.