Title: What Happens At Night
Author: Peter Cameron
Genre: Literary Fiction
This book is strange, and yet not so. It did seem weird when I began reading it, but then all the pieces took shape and joined together perfectly, like a jigsaw puzzle, and then I wasn’t baffled anymore. At the same time, I am in awe of Cameron’s writing – astute, precise, and fabulist – so much rolled into one, and yet the individual threads of the story aren’t lost.
An unnamed American couple has travelled days from New York City, to an unnamed European country, with the sole purpose of adopting a child. They are staying in a palatial and yet extremely spooky old hotel, Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel. The woman is battling stage-four cancer, and this is the reason no one outside of this country will let them adopt a child. A child to them is the only hope to get through life with the hurdle thrown at them.
In all of this they encounter a motley bunch of people – odd, bizarre, mysterious, and sometimes macabre as well, right from a businessman who wants to seduce the man, an ageing former actress who seems to have her own agenda, a local healer, and a bartender who concocts the best local schnapps. This is not even half of the story by the way. The other part of the story where the action really takes place is the marriage of the couple and what happens to it in a strange country surrounded by strange people.
I think what stayed with me while I was reading the book, and will continue to is the atmospheric elements that Cameron infuses so generously – it feels as though the elements are at play independent of the plot (to some extent) but they are the driving force of the narrative. From the gloom of a night to the brightness of a lamp in the hotel room, to the menacing outdoors – the orphanage, the healer’s place, and the railway station – each element brings out a sense of dread and suspense – juxtaposing the marriage of the couple.
I firmly believe that the marriage is another character that is always at the forefront. The frailties of it, the thin line between love and hate, the secrets that hold a marriage together, and what we learn about ourselves in the process shines in Cameron’s prose. Yes, the world of What Happens at Night is weird and enigmatic, and strange, yet it is soothing. I wanted to be in it. A fly on the wall, maybe but I wanted to be a part of it. A world of strangers – each assigned their own role, and at the heart of it – the unnamed couple and their perceptions of marital bliss or otherwise.