As a mystery, Julia Glass’s fifth novel, And the Dark Sacred Night, fails completely. The plot ostensibly concerns the quest of Kit Noonan—fortysomething, depressed, directionless—to learn about his birth father, whom his mother has always refused to discuss, in the hope that resolving the past will help him move ahead into the future.
That’s not even a good mystery.
Anyway, the mystery, such as it is, is resolved by page six. In a brief prologue, set in the summer of 1967, a pair of teenagers named Malachy and Daphne meet at music camp and bond over the nasty limericks Malachy has composed about their instructors. Will these two become Kit’s parents? Have you ever read a novel before?
If you have read a certain other novel, Three Junes, Glass’s first, which won the National Book Award back in 2002, there will be no mystery to solve at all. You already know the teen romance is doomed because Malachy is gay and will grow up to become a brilliant, acerbic music critic (his wit grown beyond limericks) who will, in 1990, commit suicide, Final Exit-style, to avoid the medical indignities involved in dying of AIDS. After his death, his friend, caretaker, and should’ve-been lover, Fenno McLeod, discovers a box under his bed containing evidence that, as a teenager, Mal sired a son named Christoper.
And yet Glass persists on carrying us along on Kit’s quest, starting with a visit to his stepfather in Vermont, now divorced from Kit’s mother, Daphne, whom he had once promised he would never reveal the name of Kit’s father. Will he reconsider? Of course he will! How can Glass possibly keep fans of Three Junes from a reunion with Mal and Fenno, her two best fictional creations?
Here’s where I admit to reviewer bias: I am one of those fans. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve reread Three Junes. My memory will snag on some phrase, some barb of Mal’s wit or one of Fenno’s sharp but wistful observations about his own loneliness, that makes me pull it back off the shelf. With every reading, the book has grown deeper, richer, and wiser.
Outwardly, not much happens in Three Junes—most of the action takes place in the characters’ heads—but it shows off Glass’s greatest gift as a writer: her generosity. She’s created an extremely populated fictional world, yet every character—male and female, young and old, human and canine—comes with a history and a fully formed personality; they’re complex enough to behave in unexpected, yet believable, ways, as people and dogs often do in real life, though not in fiction.
She’s nearly as generous in And the Dark Sacred Night, but it’s not evident until the second section, when she introduces Kit’s stepfather, Jasper. Kit himself is a bit of a whiner and a ditherer, and his wife, Sandra, is a martinet; neither is particularly compelling. Jasper is different. He verges on becoming a cliche—the crusty old fart with a heart of gold—but Glass immerses her readers so completely in the particulars of his life, which is full enough even before Kit shows up with questions about his paternity, he becomes fully himself. When Jasper takes center stage, Kit fades to a minor character so pleasant and agreeable that you barely notice him, and his purpose in the book becomes clear: he and his quest are a MacGuffin.
The story Glass is really interested in telling is about how secrets affect the lives of families and, in particular, marriages. Once she gives up the pretense that there’s actually a mystery to be solved, And the Dark Sacred Night becomes a much better book. When Glass moves on to Mal’s parents, Lucinda and Zeke Burns, who are as fully formed and surprising as Jasper, it becomes downright engrossing. (Fenno returns as well, but I am sorry to report that a dozen years of domestic happiness with a gregarious restaurateur named Walter, in addition to the loss of his voice to third-person narration, have made him considerably less interesting.)
Glass doesn’t go in for heavy drama, aside from Lucinda and Zeke dropping the bombshell of Kit’s existence on the rest of the family at Thanksgiving dinner and a genuinely surprising death late in the novel. Instead she examines the subtle and often unpredictable effects of secrets, and the effort of keeping them.
Walter defines a secret as “anything Fenno knows I’d want to know”; change the name, and just about all the characters would agree. For some, keeping a secret is a deliberate act of kindness (or at least it’s intended to be). For others, a secret is accidental, due to lack of self-knowledge. Only Daphne withholds a secret out of spite—and then, it seems, only because the plot requires it; 42 years is a long time to hold a grudge against a boy who spurned you at summer camp, especially after he’s dead.
And the Dark Sacred Night doesn’t quite live up to Three Junes. It relies too heavily, at least initially, on plot machinations, and it sometimes fails to expose its characters as deeply as it should. But as a successor, it’s good enough.