"'Lilliet Berne' was in every way my greatest performance, but almost no one knew this to be true," explains Lilliet Berne, the tragic heroine of Alexander Chee's sweeping epic novel, The Queen of the Night. She grew up in Minnesota and fled to New York after the death of her family, acquiring the name Lilliet Berne from a New York graveyard. She joins a circus as an equestrienne and then arrives in Paris in the latter half of the 19th century, taking on a series of other 'woman of the night' roles: prostitute, courtesan and, eventually, opera star.
By 1882, she is a celebrity — the Kim Kardashian or Lady Gaga of her day, except that beautiful as her singing voice is, she never speaks in public. The final pinnacle of success for Lilliet is to perform an operatic role written specifically for her. "For a singer, this was your only immortality," she says. "All the rest would pass." But when such an opera is written, it contains secrets about Lilliet's scandalous younger years that only four people could know and that threaten to ruin her. As she tries to work out who is responsible, she delves back into her past looking for clues.
Chee's novel is meticulously researched and richly imagined, in terms of both historical detail and its compelling but flawed central character. Set amid a rapidly changing Paris, caught in the middle of the Franco-Prussian War, it transcends the world of opera, politics and espionage. Really, though, The Queen of the Night is concerned with love and especially fate. In its most literal sense, Lilliet talks of an opera singer's Fach — a German word meaning the range and type of roles a singer is fated to play. Lilliet's Fach is as a Falcon or a tragic soprano. "Nothing to fear from a fate that was already yours, then, except, perhaps, that it would never leave you," she says.
Structured itself like an opera, The Queen of the Night borrows heavily from Greek myth; the marks of Orpheus, Icarus and Narcissus are all there. Complex and imaginative, Chee's novel makes for a fascinating read. It is long and slow-burning at times but well worth persevering.
Disclaimer: The Queen of the Night, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is out now. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.