No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, March 01, 1994

Midnight is a Lonely Place -- Barbara Erskine

Somewhere on the desolate Essex coast a grave has lain, forgotten, for centuries. Now the rising sea, together with the unprofessional ministrations of troubled teenager Alison, is uncovering the grave's secrets - and awakening those who wish those secrets to remain hidden.

Meanwhile, best-selling biographer Kate Kennedy (a woman so uncertain of her own identity that she frequently addresses herself in the third person) has fled from a doomed love affair to the imagined solitude of north-east Essex. But there is something nasty on the beach, and in the woods, and in the cottage where she is vainly attempting to complete her biography of Lord Byron. Together with assorted natives and yokels, she is drawn into a tangled web of romance and deceit.

Barbara Erskine has found a lucrative theme - the eternal triangle echoing through time - and she's more than willing to come up with another variation. Midnight is a Lonely Place has the ingredients of a true Gothic romance - the windswept setting, the ancient feud, the power of evil and the love which is stronger than death. Erskine's evocation of the past may well be historically accurate - it's really too intimate and personal for one to be able to argue with it - and the plot builds subtly to a mildly chilling denouement. There are some interesting, if undeveloped, thoughts on existence and motivation after death. But the characters, present and past, are two-dimensional, and it's difficult to care whether the forces of evil win or not - although one cannot help but admire the ingenuity of a ghost who can cut off Kate's phone line immediately after her paranoid conversations with her estranged lover or her sister, who is (conveniently) a Jungian psychologist.

If the novel has a specific fault, it is that there are simply too many words. In lieu of characterisation, we are shown the minutiae of each person's existence; from the process of making a maggot-free cup of chocolate, to Alison's taste in Music to Excavate By. Perhaps because the characters have little inner life, their actions often appear illogical. This edition also bears the signs of desultory proof-reading; I object to having to work the grammar out for myself, even if that's more challenging than the plot. Despite the faults, though, it's a gripping read; Erskine's suspenseful style keeps the reader hooked right to the end, a talent which should be applauded. Just don't go looking for hidden depths.

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