The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee

The Queen of the Night
The Queen of the Night*

A voice is a fragile thing. In the larger sense, voices can be drowned out by the majority, written off, diminished. When voices are silenced, we lose a bit of the richness of the world. More specifically, an singer’s voice can be ruined by drinking and drugs (Marianne Faithfull), smoking (Joni Mitchell), or just singing too hard (Édith Piaf). Alexander Chee’s astounding novel, The Queen of the Night, had me thinking about voices—in the larger sense and in the specific. The Queen of the Night isn’t just about the power of voice; it’s also about love, fate, revenge, and tragedy. The book is an opera itself and I was utterly captivated by it.

Lilliet Berne is a chameleon and an escape artist. We meet her at the height of her career, in Paris in 1880. She is a rare soprano, called a Falcon for her ability to sing soprano parts that incorporate part of the mezzo range. She was told when she auditioned for the Conservatoire that her voice would not last; it would eventually desert her. This doesn’t worry Lilliet. What worries her is that an author has just approached her with a role that mirrors her early, most disreputable years in Paris. Lilliet has a lot of secrets to hide and the city is not as tolerant as one might think.

As Lilliet tries to discover who knows all her secrets and is threatening to tell the world, she takes us back to the years between the mid-1860s through the Franco-Prussian War, up to her debut at the Théâtre-Italien. We learn that Lilliet Berne is the name she chose for herself after she fled rural Minnesota. (We never learn her real name.) We see her as the star of a traveling circus, a highly specialized courtesan, a maid for the Empress, and all her other incarnations.

There are three suspects who know Lilliet’s secrets: a vengeful countess, a possessive tenor, and an old friend. Lilliet’s investigations reveal that her story—in which she is the protagonist—overlap with the countess and the tenor’s stories. In their stories, Lilliet is a pawn (the countess’s story) or an object of desire (the tenor’s story). By the end of the book, the other characters’ machinations have turned Lilliet’s life into one of the operas she’s starred in. All her real loves are star-crossed and nearly everyone she meets is seeking some kind of revenge. As much as Lilliet wants to find her own fate and pursue it, she’s caught in an almost inescapable web of plotting.

Before I wrap up, there is one other thing I need to mention about this book. Lilliet’s career will send readers to YouTube to listen to the various arias mentioned in the book. Last night I lost a couple of hours listening to the Queen of the Night Aria (The Magic Flute), arias from Lucia di Lammermoor, Carmen, and Faust. I also lost some time reading up on famous sopranos I found on YouTube, as well as the historical signers that were name-dropped or made an appearance in The Queen of the Night. This book really ought to come with a soundtrack.

When Lilliet is not actively seeking voice lessons or singing roles, she often claims to be mute. Curiously, this does not make Lilliet entirely powerless. When characters think she can’t reveal their secrets, they tell Lilliet things. But this tiny bit of power always evaporates with Lilliet speaks. Her voice is what catches the world’s attention, what keeps her tangled up with other characters, and what turns her life into an opera of its own.

I don’t hold much truck with omens, but I hope that The Queen of the Night sets the tone for the rest of my reading in 2016. This book was magical. It’s complexity and originality make me want to go back to the beginning and read it all over again.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 2 February 2016.

* According to the author’s note at the end of the book, the cover picture depicts one of the characters in the book who was actually a historical figure: the Comtesse de Castiglione.

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