The notorious Romantic poet spiritually presides over a modern-day fable of forbidden desire, apocalyptic foreboding, and campus melodrama.
Eads’ novel hopscotches between settings and centuries as it elaborates its transhistorical saga of psychosexual hysteria. It picks up with Byron’s storied 1816 Lake Geneva sojourn with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Shelley’s future wife, Mary, full of melancholy musings and ghost stories. Out swimming one day, Byron starts to flounder and, before you can say, “For the love of God, I cannot stand to see this!...End my life but show me no more!” he sees the world engulfed in a burning hellscape—prophetic visions he will immortalize in his poem “Darkness.” Fast-forward to present-day Westervelt University and an array of entanglements: professor Adam Fane, a man staggering under several guilty secrets; his son Gordon, a student and basketball star; English professor Amber Oxley, who is carrying on a hidden affair with Gordon; and Gordon’s bluff but troubled roommate John-Mark. The entwined storylines fester with emotional turmoil: Byron has to be restrained by Count Guiccioli’s men from hurling his young daughter from a window; Adam’s mind wanders compulsively to his boyhood homoerotic friendship with a handsome all-American schoolmate. As years pass, unacknowledged perversions propagate between generations. Linking them are contrived resonances—Adam has a clubfoot like Byron; Gordon has a dog he calls Shiloh, Byron’s nickname for Shelley; a latter-day tween actually reads Byron—and, above all, the main characters’ constant, mentally crippling subjection to Byronic visions of ravaged faces and fire. This last motif means the novel frequently bogs down in turgid dream imagery that’s often more tiresome than evocative. Eads is a skillful writer, though, and when he sticks to describing the real world his characters inhabit—the sphere of aristocratic aesthetes and, even better, the brash but awkward jock-ish culture of Gordon and his buds—rather than the netherworlds of their imagining, he crafts complex, convincing portraits of people struggling with sins they can’t quite perceive.
A sometimes-engrossing, sometimes-overwrought journey to the soul’s dark side.