Here’s a review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #41:-
IN THE NIGHT ROOM by PETER STRAUB
Harper Collins hb, 330pp, £17.99 www.harpercollins.co.uk
This book is a sequel of sorts to lost boy lost girl, which features here as the latest bestseller from the pen of Tim Underhill. The applecart of Tim’s life has been upset in no uncertain terms. He’s being stalked by the kind of fan who makes Annie Wilkes seem like a pussycat. Then there’s the vision he has of an angel and the e-mails he’s receiving from dead people. Tim is not a happy camper. Meanwhile Willy Patrick, an award winning writer of children’s books, has just discovered that the man she is to marry is a control freak and possible killer, one whose political connections make him virtually fireproof. Willy goes on the run, pursued by agents of her husband-to-be. She is drawn to Tim Underhill, who she sees signing books in a store, and asks for his help, a request that leaves Tim shocked to the core, as Willy Patrick is the name of a character in the book he has just started to write, and this complete stranger is exactly as he imagined her. The two of them set out for Millhaven, where Tim is to attend the wedding of his brother Phil, with Willy’s pursuers close behind. Tim is now in contact with Cyrax, an otherworldly entity who reveals that his writing of lost boy lost girl has seriously screwed up the psychic ether and it’s up to Tim to set things right, but he can only do so at great personal cost.
Straub’s latest is a clever concoction, one that reads like a thriller for much of the time, at its heart a tale of detection with otherworldly elements thrown in the mix to intrigue and enthral completely. Along the way he deftly addresses abstract concepts, such as the responsibility of an author to his creations and the onus on him to get his facts right. Without meaning to Tim Underhill distorted the truth for the sake of his fiction, and now his greatest fictional creation must be sacrificed to set the balance right. In addition Straub packs the narrative with throwaway ideas, as for instance the delightful conceit that for each book written there is some ideal Platonic form, one in which the writer said exactly what he wanted to say and of which all the others are only pale shadows, with collectors who hunt ceaselessly in the hope that they might find just such a definitive text (knocks the stuffing out of the whole signed, limited, numbered edition thing, that’s for sure).
In the Night Room engages the emotions as well as the mind, with the relationship between Tim and Willy developing in a manner that’s thoroughly convincing given their unusual circumstances and then with a tragic dimension added. The poignancy of Willy’s situation, the realisation of who she is and her desperate attempts to retain corporeality tug on the heartstrings, while Tim’s efforts to discover what he did wrong and set the record straight are compellingly portrayed, his ‘angelic’ mentor and guide brought to credible life on the page with his own distinctive method of communication (and no, it’s not SPEAKING LIKE THIS). Straub’s descriptive power is as finely tuned as ever, giving us scenes that will linger in the memory long after the book is done and character portraits that convince utterly, even the minor members of his dramatis personae drawn with painstaking attention to detail and the little peculiarities that make them real.
The end result of all Straub’s efforts is a novel that’s as thought provoking as it is beautifully written, one that will reward repeated readings and makes a worthy addition to the body of his work. Highly recommended.