The first sentence of this book informs you that the narrator, Edward Glyver, is a murderer. And the whole point of this story is to explain why. Edward has been brought up in Dorset, in the mid 1800s, by two people he believes to be his parents. His father is a wastrel, his mother writes romantic fiction to keep the family fed. She is overworked and mentally exhausted. Occasionally the family is visited by a woman Edward knows as Miss Lamb and all he knows about her is that she is his mother's best friend. Eventually he is sent to Eton to complete his education and here he meets one, Phoebus Daunt, who will have an unimaginable impact on his life.
Phoebus lives at Evenwood, a large stately home, where his mother, a cousin to the owner, Lord Tansor, has been busy ingratiating herself with him with a view to persuading him to make Phoebus his heir. When Phoebus conspires to get Edward expelled from Eton, it sets Edward on a lifelong course of revenge... and discovery. What is his own connection to Lord Tansor's dead first wife? Why does Evenwood seem familiar? And who actually was the woman who visited him as a child? Edward tells Phoebus as he leaves Eton that 'Revenge has a long memory' but does not envisage exactly how long and what he will have to go through to exact his revenge.
Wow. Just 'wow'. How can you sympathize with a murderer? Because a murderer is just what Edward Glyver is. He tells you what he did to an innocent man within the first few pages and you're horrified, but something tells you he has his reasons. And while you remain horrified, as you read on you can see the logic and can understand his motives. He is not the nicest of people himself. He's a manipulator, a bit of a womaniser, and indulges freely in the seedy underbelly of Victorian London. But still you realise that he has been unfairly treated by persons known and unknown and can't help but have some sympathy for his predicament. That's the work of a very good author, imo, when you can be made to feel sorry for a narrator who is not himself that pleasant a person.
I can well understand how this book took thirty years to write. It's a work of such cleverness and long research, and clearly a labour of love. The plot is intricate and twisted and the story so beautifully written; never a word out of place, it feels as though it's been written by someone of the Victorian age, when of course, it hasn't. Michael Cox was of my own generation! This is how to write a Victorian novel... I feel like flinging it at a few authors I could name who've made such a travesty of their attempts, but I won't go there. If you like a Victorian novel with a gothicky feel to it, secrets, a mystery that needs to be solved and excellent historical detail then look no further. And there is a sequel. The Glass of Time, published in 2008, before the author's death, picks up the story 20 years later. I can't wait to read it.