Book Review: The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge

The Night OceanThe Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary: From the award-winning author and New Yorker contributor, a riveting novel about secrets and scandals, psychiatry and pulp fiction, inspired by the lives of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle.

Marina Willett, M.D., has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror writer’s life: In the summer of 1934, the “old gent” lived for two months with a gay teenage fan named Robert Barlow, at Barlow’s family home in central Florida. What were the two of them up to? Were they friends–or something more? Just when Charlie thinks he’s solved the puzzle, a new scandal erupts, and he disappears. The police say it’s suicide. Marina is a psychiatrist, and she doesn’t believe them.

A tour-de-force of storytelling, The Night Ocean follows the lives of some extraordinary people: Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, whose stories continue to win new acolytes, even as his racist views provoke new critics; Barlow, a seminal scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality (and who collaborated with Lovecraft on the beautiful story The Night Ocean); his student, future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L.C. Spinks, a kindly Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan — the only person who knows the origins of The Erotonomicon, purported to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft himself.

As a heartbroken Marina follows her missing husband’s trail in an attempt to learn the truth, the novel moves across the decades and along the length of the continent, from a remote Ontario town, through New York and Florida to Mexico City.

The Night Ocean is about love and deception — about the way that stories earn our trust, and betray it.






I’m still having trouble figuring out what I want to say about this book, even though I gave it plenty of time to sink in. This was a complex book, with a plot twist at the end of each part, and with a truly ridiculous amount of references (thank goodness for the footnotes!).

The premise of the book was what drew me in initially. Marina, the main character (technically), is searching for her husband, Charlie, after he disappears. Everyone says it’s a suicide, but she doesn’t believe it. To try to find him, she goes deep into his research in an effort to find out the truth of what he was researching- the Erotonomicon, supposedly Lovecraft’s personal record of his time with Robert Barlow.

But The Night Ocean isn’t just about Marina’s search; it’s also about Lovecraft and Barlow, and their lives. There’s Canada and Mexico, and World War II, conspiracy after conspiracy, and a whole host of characters, most of whom were real people- writers, in fact. This book was a story within a story within a story- as I got farther, I kept peeling back layer after layer of the plot, but the truth was too deep for me to reach.

Honestly, through the whole book and even at the end, my only thought was, ‘WHAT IS THE TRUTH?

Each time I thought I had it figured out, I was promptly proven wrong and it was fantastic.

Also, the writing was awesome. There was just something about it that felt…candid, I suppose. I enjoyed reading in Marina’s voice, even if I did dislike her devotion to Charlie sometimes.

The story of Barlow and Lovecraft was truly touching, and Marina’s grief and unwillingness to believe was realistic. The ending was ambiguous, which I was pretty happy about- it really fit the tone of the book. However, I also really wanted to know if what I suspected was right, so I was also a little bit angry.

This book was so much more than what I was expecting, and it was incredible. It had its problems, sure, but it was truly an experience reading this.

(I received an ARC free, and it does not impact my review in any way.)

View all my reviews


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