Back in 2002, I read Alexander Chee's acclaimed first book “Edinburgh” - a novel that was equally engrossing for its strikingly original language as it was for being about a gay boy growing up in Maine (where I was also raised.) The protagonist Fee struggles to overcome his traumatic childhood and feels the story of his life is mingled with that of a mythic fox. Interestingly, although Chee's long-anticipated second novel “The Queen of the Night” is a huge departure from this first book, the narrator who calls herself Lilliet Berne also finds her identity paired with an animal – in this case a falcon which is an operatic singing voice that registers between a soprano and mezzo. The novel begins in 1882 when Lilliet is one of the most famous opera singers in Europe. At a lavish party she meets a writer who has produced a novel about a singer's life and he hopes that it will be turned into an opera which she will star in. Lilliet is shocked to find the story is her own. She fears that someone is secretly plotting to destroy her as the real story of her past and her difficult rise to fame is known only to a few.
The novel relates Lilliet’s quest to uncover who is behind this planned opera and tells the epic tale of her life. Along the way we get an intimate glimpse of the dramatic fall of the Second French Empire and the fascinating famous figures that shaped the events and fashion of the time. She interacts with artists and writers including Ivan Turgenev and George Sand - described as looking like an “old elf.” Two of the most interesting people at the novel’s centre are the Empress Eugenie who was exiled following the end of Napoleon III’s reign and the Comtesse de Castiglione who was Napoleon III’s mistress and a cunning figure of influence. Both were style icons of the time, wielded significant political power behind the scenes and were engaged in a fascinating rivalry. Fashion is at the heart of this novel where details of Lilliet’s dresses and concerns about appearances abound. It revels in the sumptuous detail from emerald jewellery to crystal-beaded silk satin bodices to powdered wigs. As well as providing a survey of how style reflects the culture of the time, this extended engagement with forms of presentation reflects the way Lilliet constantly works to reshape her identity in order to survive. Yet this can cause her difficulty when at points “I had confused myself with my disguise.” The clothes are an emblem of power. Lilliet strives to attain as much power as possible to free herself from the past, yet risks losing a connection to who she really is and what she really wants in the process.
The story of “The Queen of the Night” is filled with all the high-pitched melodrama of an opera and Chee reveals in an afterward how the storyline is based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute. What’s fascinating is the way he combines all the dramatic plots and exaggerated emotion of this art form with the subtly of psychological insight that can only be accomplished in a long fictional narrative. There’s the wild adventure and sensational tale of a woman who utilizes her talent for singing and ingenuity to rise out of desolate impoverished circumstances to sit at the centre of society. A ruby gift from an emperor, the colourful diversity of circus life, the intrigue of a high society house of pleasure, a hot air balloon escape, assignations in secret rooms, shocking murder, the collapse of one society and the birth of a new society all feature. It leads Lilliet to reflect that “my whole life had become the opera.” So much action threaded through this condensed and personal history does at points threaten to spin the story out of control. As fantastical as it all seems, the novel does give a framework to the lives of many extraordinary real life people who lived in extraordinary times. But at its centre is always the heartfelt voice of an individual desperately seeking to assert her independence, fully realize love’s potential and practice her artistry amongst those who only seek to possess and use her.
Lilliet uses the rumour of a superstitious curse to escape playing an opera role selected for her and there is a lot of speculation throughout the book about how fate and destiny may shape her story. She ponders how “A singer learned her roles for life – your repertoire was a library of fates held close, like the gowns in this closet, yours until your voice failed.” There is ultimately nothing predetermined about life except for the choices we make and the opportunities we embrace or reject. Lilliet’s great turning point comes when she enters into the tutelage of a famed voice teacher named Pauline. Here she utilizes the potential for achieving the greatness which her talent can give her. For me, it’s a quote from of a giant named Ernesto at the circus that reverberates throughout this novel when he says “We’re none of us made right for this world. But we’re still here, aren’t we?” In embracing what makes her different, Lilliet achieves success and finds her true place.
It’s also in the training school in Baden-Baden under Pauline’s guidance that the narrative comes vibrantly alive. The process of leaning to discipline and master her voice is recounted in fascinatingly realistic detail. The experience of Lilliet’s reality is also intensely felt in her performances when emerging on the stage we see from her point of view how she “couldn't see these men and women as the limelights burned, only the smooth seashell walls of the Comique and the gaps where the boxes were, like the sockets in a skull, a depthless dark from the moment the curtain went up.” She performs for the audience just as she does for the people she encounters in her life – enchanting them with her talent but unable to fully see their motives or the circumstances of her own situation until it is too late.
The novel’s title takes on multiple meanings over the course of the story. The Queen of the Night is a role in an opera which is so difficult that it might break her voice. It’s also the position of a prostitute as explained by the madam who states “This is a profession; you are performers. These men, they entrust us with their most secret fantasies, and we, we keep that trust – they rule the day, we rule the night.” More than recounting the exploits of the most famous figures from history, this is a novel dedicated to those who played behind the scenes and steered major events in ways which aren’t recounted in the history books. They are the ones who played an equally important part in shaping the culture we live in today.
I was frequently enthralled reading “The Queen of the Night” just for the pleasure of its luscious detail and the finely-honed beauty of Chee’s writing. This is a novel with thrilling adventure, intriguing insight and tremendous scope that brings a dramatic period of history fully to life.