Review: “The Night Ocean” by Paul La Farge

Warning: This post contains spoilers

When I saw The Night Ocean on a list of suggested summer reading, I was intrigued.  My husband loves HP Lovecraft, but I’d never read any of his books.  I decided to read “The Night Ocean”–the short story written by Barlow and Lovecraft–first to get a taste for his work and get a deeper understanding of the book.

“The Night Ocean” is a beautifully written story about an artist who finds himself at the cusp of uncovering some great mystery, but in the end discovers nothing.  The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge is essentially the same story.  And I felt the same sense of unfulfilled disappointment at the end of each one.

The beginning of the book sets up an intriguing mystery: did the main character’s husband commit suicide, and, if so, why?  We are then treated to three additional narrative threads detailing the lives of H.P. Lovecraft, Richard H. Barlow, and Leo Spinks.  The accounts are all interesting in their own way, but I had trouble connecting with the characters.  The gloomy outlook on life they all three espoused isn’t terribly enjoyable to read about, and the accounts were practically eventless in their ordinariness.  All three men made some incredibly stupid decisions and didn’t seem to have good reasons for doing so. I kept waiting for something exciting to happen or for some mystery to be revealed, but there was nothing.  That the female characters really only existed to be love interests for the male characters was frustrating. The only character that I did enjoy and identify with, Marina, the psychotherapist working to unravel the mystery of her husband’s suicide, was barely in the book and really doesn’t do much more than any of the other characters.  

(Warning: Spoilers follow)

The reveal, that Leo Spinks was a liar, was incredibly obvious and I couldn’t understand why any of the characters believed him to begin with.  And then, to leave the central mystery of Charlie’s suicide unsolved just compounded the sense of disappointment I felt.  The ambiguous ending would have been fine if there had been some other kind of payoff or sense of satisfaction, but there was nothing.

Overall, while I did enjoy reading about some of the history of early science fiction, I would have rather read actual histories.  Those, at least, don’t promise a mystery and fail to deliver.  So while The Night Ocean had some intriguing elements, was well written and enjoyable in parts, it failed to really engage me and left me dissatisfied in the end.  But maybe that was the point?  Either way, my recommendation is to save yourself some time and read “The Night Ocean” by Lovecraft and Barlow.  Some of the writing is so beautiful that you’ll get lost in it and you’ll be left with the same depressing disappointment and sense of futility.