Irresistibly billed as a combination between a Kafka story and a Wes Anderson movie, What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron is a mesmerising work of psychological fiction. The action, inaction, and plain weirdness centres around an unnamed, middle-aged American couple and their quest to adopt a child. Dying of cancer, the wife wishes to provide her husband with someone to love when she’s gone. Their destination is an orphanage located in the chilliest reaches of northern Europe, but first they must navigate the peculiar world of the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel and its eccentric inhabitants.
Cameron’s hallucinatory and often droll novel of love and death begins on the couple’s inbound train journey, en route to an unrevealed city.
‘Evening descended with unnerving abruptness, like a curtain hurriedly lowered on an amateur theatrical gone horribly awry.’
The sudden darkness is a result of the train entering a dense pine forest and a hint that they’re leaving reality behind and may not be acquainted with it for some time. They are the only passengers to alight at a snowy, godforsaken way station, where serendipity (or something more unnerving) provides an unexpected driver to take them to their hotel.
From the vast carpeted lobby to the string quartet playing in the chandeliered restaurant, the Borgarfjaroasyla Grand Imperial Hotel has an air of bygone splendour. Fellow guests are few and far between but when the man pops down to the bar for an evening drink, he encounters one who will change the course of his story.
Over a glass of the curious local schnapps (made from lichen with ‘the silvery blue glow’ of snow at twilight) the man engages in conversation with the resident hotel pianist, a disconcertingly sexual elderly lady who charms him with tales of her past life as a trapeze artist and theatrical actress. She wonders whether he’s here for the orphanage or Brother Emmanuel, the world-famous healer.
‘Are you looking to be healed?’ She asks.
Fortuitous as it may seem for this remote town to contain the two things his wife most desires, a baby and a cure, the man guesses she’ll have no truck with Brother Emmanuel. And so it is that the couple stick to their original plan and take a taxi to the orphanage to meet their baby. Except it isn’t the orphanage they arrive at, and it seems that an unknown someone has decided that maybe a baby is the last thing they need.
Cameron furnishes his tale of dislocation and metamorphosis with unpredictable and surreal situations and characters. Heavy snow sets in and within the confines of this Twilight-Zone-ish hotel, the couple’s relationship walks the tightrope between love and hate. The woman sleeps for much of the time or is torpid and dispassionate. Her husband imagines that she is feigning it and has forsaken him, while she in turn, rejects the kindness he proffers her dying self.
‘Kindness- what a horrible word!- is what we give to those we don’t love.’
Combining emotional depth with humour and purposeful peculiarity, this is a strange and often beautiful read.
What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron is published by Europa Editions, 321 pages.