Thursday, April 14, 2016

Worth All The Buzz: Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night

This book has received an enormous amount of buzz to start the year, as the highly anticipated second novel of Alexander Chee that took twelve years to come to fruition has received glowing reviews and strong recommendations from popular book websites like Book Riot and The Millions. In many ways it has become this year's A Little Life, and ironically Hana Yanagihara gives a glowing blurb for Queen on the back.

But while A Little Life was a raw and emotionally draining barrage of intensity (which I loved, but others didn't), Chee's novel is a much more polished and precise book. No word or sentence is wasted. Chee carries the reader carefully through the story of Liliet Berne, the most celebrated opera star in Third Republic France, whose secret past risks exposure unless she can discover who has revealed her origin story. 

The writing is beautiful and Chee is very subtle in how he reveals new information and manages to offer sharp turns in plot without any sense of overreaching or awkwardness. His writing is also meticulous, paying attention to the slightest personal detail that shapes our impression of each of the characters. And the amount of research he must of have done to construct Liliet's world is astounding. We are taken to the France of Napoleon III, the Europe of the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris of the Commune and we believe we are there. 

In the end Chee has provided us an astonishing story, that envelopes us in atmosphere but also gives us insight into the limits and barriers that even the most talented of women faced and the choices a woman like Liliet had to make to finally be free. 

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