A New Series: One Minute Reviews of
Books by Vermont Authors
Laura's column "One Minute Reviews" has appeared bi-weekly in Wilmington, Vermont's Deerfield Valley News since 2015. In April 2018, she found that no Vermont periodical consistently reviews all commercially published fiction and non-fiction by Vermont authors, so she started a series to fill that void. Published reviews from that series and some earlier reviews of local authors are listed with links to a scan of the printed copy. Reviews still in queue are listed without links until they appear in print.
Deerfield Valley News, 10/8/2020
Visit to a Dark Country
Peter Cameron, What Happens at Night. Catapult, 2020
An American couple, throughout the book referred to only as "the man" and "the woman," sit across from each other in a train that is rushing through the frozen landscape of an unnamed northern European country. They are on their way to adopt a baby at the only place that will bestow one upon a middle aged couple in which the woman has cancer.As they look out the train window, the landscape suddenly changes from open, snow-filled tundra to a forest of enormous fir trees that crowd so close to the tracks that the woman shrinks back, suddenly afraid that they "might reach in and scratch her." In the sudden darkness, their dialogue, which throughout is punctuated without quotation marks, demonstrates tremendous tension between them; their confusion when the train stops at an empty, snow-covered way station at which they mistakenly disembark sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
The couple finally arrive at the Borgarfjaroasyla Grand Imperial Hotel, which has an enormous Victorian lobby, a perpetually open bar, a dining room that serves multi-course meals, and small rooms apparently furnished with pieces from defunct hotels in different countries.In the bar, the man meets the hotel's lounge singer, Livia Pinheiro-Rima, an elderly woman of acute intelligence, sporadic compassion and uncertain truthfulness. She informs him that the town is known for two things: the orphanage and the healer, Brother Emmanuel. Later in the evening, when the distraught woman appears in the lobby wearing only silk underwear, Livia wraps her in a bear-skin coat and comforts her. As the man, embarrassed and distressed, urges his wife to let him help her to bed, Livia remarks upon the sadness of that request: "Everybody goes to bed eventually, don't they? It's what happens at night. People disappear. Or they're not there in the first place." The lines, in addition to giving the book its title, imply an ambivalent and vaguely threatening sense of reality—the signature mood of a tale in which the healer and the orphanage become accidentally confused with each other, and gradually separated in a way that leaves the reader questioning the meaning of the powerful concluding pages.
Cameron writes what can only be called superb prose.The book's scenes are often subtly comic, but the relationship between the man and the woman is a poignantly tragic portrayal of a couple whose love has been beset by miscarriage, disease, and despair. The setting, while lightly sketched, skillfully portrays a town at the edge of civilization, whose vain hope (the reader discovers two-thirds of the way through) has been to become a venue for the Winter Olympics—a revelation that suddenly makes sense of the Grand Imperial Hotel's odd mixture of old world magnificence and cheap modern construction. The novel's texture, which depends upon exquisite descriptive skill balanced by vague confusion of reality and fantasy, is strongly reminiscent of absurdist works of the mid-twentieth century. Complex and ambiguous, this is in every sense a literary novel. Whether that is a compliment or a warning depends upon the taste of the reader, but there is no doubting the skill of the author.