Peter Cameron’s transporting novel, Andorra (1997), was one of the first works I responded to as a book critic. I was struck by his gift for creating a reality that’s slightly askew - the landlocked Andorra is depicted here as a seaside locale - and yet which also serves as a mirror for the one we inhabit. I also loved how his tale of a stranger who comes to a strange land evoked one of my classic favorites, Mysteries by Knut Hamsun.
Andorra was Cameron's sixth published book, and in the decades since he has built on his talent and sensibility in the decades since, through novels including The City of Your Final Destination (2002), Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2007) and Coral Glynn (2012).
His new novel, What Happens at Night, is reminiscent of Andorra - only this time it is a couple of outsiders who arrive in a strange city. The never named man and his wife, who is suffering from stage four uterine cancer, have travelled from Manhattan to adopt a baby in the frozen town of Borgarfjaroasysla. The action takes place in three locales – the Grand Imperial Hotel, where they encounter a cast of characters who are slightly off; the orphanage and the residence of faith healer who must convince the woman he has not cured her.
Everybody and everything is slightly off; Cameron masterfully creates a mood of odd foreboding. Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal nailed this when he described the novel as an “optical illusion.”
Consider it from one angle and you have the darkly comic tale of a Manhattan couple’s winter trip to a forgotten European backwater within the Arctic Circle, the site of the only orphanage willing to let them adopt a baby in spite of the wife’s late-stage cancer. There, while lodging at an absurdly grandiose hotel, they fall under the influence of an array of kooks and criminals who prey on them for their own idle designs. But relax your eyes and the book changes complexion, dissolving into an atmosphere of pure Gothic horror, filled with phantoms and demons and other avatars of the uncanny. … All of this plays out amid the distortion of perpetual darkness (“A year is like a day here [and] the winter is really nothing more than a single night”), which obscures the true nature of each interaction. Are the side characters paranormal or just eccentric?
Who knows? As Cameron walks this tightrope of uncertainty where everything becomes a question – is the man gay or straight? was the sex consensual or rape? is the woman sick or saved? is the baby a love object or possession? does true attachment mean letting go? - he tells a story full that is poignant, often funny and always mysterious.
Peter Cameron’s Top Ten List
1. The Outward Room by Millen Brand (1937).
2. The Professor’s House by Willa Cather (1925).
3. Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov (1895).
4. The Evening of the Holiday by Shirley Hazzard (1966).
5. The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (1956).
6. The Chateau by William Maxwell (1961).
7. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym (1977).
8. Light Years by James Salter (1975).
9. What’s for Dinner? by James Schuyler (1978).
10. A Voice Through a Cloud by Denton Welch (1950).