Julia Glass’ fifth novel borrows for its title a lyric from “What a Wonderful World,” the song made famous by Louis Armstrong. In Glass’ book, the reference comes up when Fenno McLeod, the Scottish expat introduced in Three Junes, is at a therapy session with his boyfriend. “The past is like the night: dark yet sacred,” the therapist says, neatly summing up the crux of this big-hearted story of family ties. “There is no day without night, no wakefulness without sleep, no present without past. They are constantly somersaulting over each other.” So it goes in And the Dark Sacred Night.
The plotline somersaults back and forth, from past to present, and there are several points of view—though they all come back to Kit Noonan, a scholar of Inuit art who is out of a job and in an emotional rut. Kit’s wife believes that he must solve the mystery of his paternity in order to move forward; Kit’s mother got pregnant as a teenager, and she’s always refused to reveal the identity of her young lover. (It doesn’t take long for readers to learn that Kit’s father is Malachy Burns, the witty and enigmatic music critic who died from AIDS in Three Junes.) To solve the mystery, Kit travels to the house of his ex-stepfather—a woodsy, tender Vermont ski instructor—and eventually on to Provincetown for a charged weekend with people who knew Malachy.
Knowledge of Three Junes isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying this companion novel, though readers who liked the National Book Award winner will be satisfied to find out what’s happened to Fenno in the years since Malachy’s death. (Sadly, Fenno’s charming West Village bookshop has gone the way of Border’s. His parrot Felicity is still very much in the picture.) Glass is skilled at capturing how people relate to one another, and her descriptions of grief are especially piercing, as when a mother reflects on the passage of time since her child’s death. The distance from the tragedy has only moved her pain “to a more distant room; when she enters that room, though she does less so often, the pain still blinds her with its keen, diamondlike brilliance.”
My one quibble with And the Dark Sacred Night is the blandness of Kit compared to the rich and varied supporting cast; I was more invested in the interior lives of the other characters than in Kit’s midlife crisis, which launches the book. Be patient and keep reading. It’s worth it to watch how the story unfolds. Like life, the plot can be wretched and wonderful—indeed, dark yet sacred.