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Review of The Night Ocean

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The Night Ocean
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
⭐️️️️⭐️⭐️ / ⭐️️️️⭐️⭐️⭐️️️️⭐️

This is a book where my opinion of it has changed the longer I’ve been away from it. It’s a strange book, and honestly its structure was nearly its undoing for me.

The majority of the book is conducted in a way where the narrator is twice removed from the retelling of events, and when Marina does make an appearance, it’s a single line of dialogue every 50 pages or so. This is contrary to the hook of the book, which promises her mission to get the truth of her husband’s disappearance and apparent suicide, but she doesn’t resurface as a character until the very end of the book. When she (finally) takes center stage her despair feels proscribed rather than raw.

Had I written this right after finishing, I probably would have given this two stars, because it’s own structure and scholarly conceit nearly sabotages the whole book. But I’m glad I waited, because it’s allowed the shape of the story to settle into my mind, like a slow developing photo.

There’s lots to like about the book. There are delightful twists and turns as it plays with alternative interpretations of Lovecraft as a person in history. On one hand presenting him as a repressed and tortured soul, and another as a heartless racist. The same dichotomy is played it in different fashions with each of the other primary characters, LC Spinks and her husband himself. This is the point of the book, and what has ultimately swayed my opinion on it. Ultimately, this book is about the impossible search for truth.

Marina is desperately looking for revelation on what happened to her husband. She wants to understand his actions, even if it means she must follow his own obsessions to do so. She is forced to chase research that leads her several unreliable narrators deep. The motivations of their lies are not made clear, and perhaps the author’s suggestion is that the motivation is meaningless, even thoughtless, much as the jellyfish that stings Marina at the end of the book.

The implication is that to get to the truth is impossible. More specifically, to get to the truth of a person is impossible. We see glimpses, quick reflections shining off of a facet of one’s personality, but we interpret it according to our own desires, as her husband did, and either their deception, or our own willful ignorance conceals the entirety of the individual. You don’t ever see the whole, and perhaps that’s for the best. For, if you look closer, the book may even be suggesting that there is no truth of consequence, and your search through those black waters will at best get you stung, and at worst you will drown, only to become lost in the dark.

And that, that, is something worth thinking on, and earns the book its extra star.