In this richly detailed novel about the quest for an unknown father, Julia Glass brings new characters together with familiar figures from her first two novels, immersing readers in a panorama that stretches from suburban New Jersey to rural Vermont and ultimately to the tip of Cape Cod.
Kit Noonan is an unemployed art historian with twins to help support and a mortgage to pay—and a wife frustrated by his inertia. Raised by a strong-willed, secretive single mother, Kit has never known the identity of his father—a mystery that his wife insists he must solve to move forward with his life. Out of desperation, Kit goes to the mountain retreat of his mother’s former husband, Jasper, a take-no-prisoners outdoorsman. There, in the midst of a fierce blizzard, Kit and Jasper confront memories of the bittersweet decade when their families were joined. Reluctantly breaking a long-ago promise, Jasper connects Kit with Lucinda and Zeke Burns, who know the answer he’s looking for. Readers of Glass’s first novel, Three Junes, will recognize Lucinda as the mother of Malachy, the music critic who died of AIDS. In fact, to fully understand the secrets surrounding his paternity, Kit will travel farther still, meeting Fenno McLeod, now in his late fifties, and Fenno’s longtime companion, the gregarious Walter Kinderman.
And the Dark Sacred Night is an exquisitely memorable tale about the youthful choices that steer our destinies, the necessity of forgiveness, and the risks we take when we face down the shadows from our past.
She saw him through the trees, and she almost turned around. In just eight days, she had come to believe that this wedge of shore, tumbled rock enclosed by thorny juniper and stunted saplings (but lit by the tilting sun at the western side of the lake) was her secret. Each afternoon, it became her refuge—just one brief measure, a piacere, of solitude—from another attenuated day of rehearse, practice, and practice even more; of master classes and Popper études, hour after hour of Saint-Saëns and Debussy; of walking over plush lawns, passing adults who spoke zealously, even angrily, in German and Russian; of waking and going to sleep in a room shared with three other girls.
Not that this life wasn’t precisely, incandescently, what she had craved, dreamed about, most of all worked for. How funny that all this discipline and deprivation rewarded Daphne with the headiest freedom she had ever known: freedom, to begin with, from her mother’s vigilance and her brother’s condescension, from another summer mixing paints and copying keys in her father’s hardware store.
During Afternoon Rest, some campers retreated to their rooms to write letters or take naps. When the rooms were too hot to stand, they spread beach towels under the estate’s monumental trees—or on the sliver of sandy beach. Others loitered at Le Manoir, though nobody called it that. They called it HQ. There was a games lounge with a moth-eaten billiards table; you could play Monopoly, backgammon, chess. They took turns using the pay phones on the porch.
But Daphne came here: sometimes just to sit, sometimes read, more often to gaze at the water and let herself wonder at . . . well, at the hereness of here. To reassure herself that it was real. To be alone.
Except that today she wasn’t.
Malachy, first flute, sat on her favorite rock facing the lake. She recognized him right away, because just that day, standing behind him in the lunch line, she happened to notice the distinctive swallowtail of his tame brown hair as it forked to either side of his narrow neck. (His close haircut seemed almost affected; most of the boys had mussed-up manes, Paul McCartney hair.) His posture, typical of flautists, was upright, attentive. He wore his T-shirts tucked into the belted waist of loose khaki shorts. And like his hair, his shirts were defiantly square: no slogans, tie-dyed sunbursts, silhouettes of shaggy rock stars, or sly allusions to other music camps. That day his T-shirt was orange.
“What, not practicing?” she said.
He did not jump, nor did he stand. Waiting till she stood beside him, he looked up and said, “If it isn’t the swan herself, come to test the waters.”
Daphne’s swimsuit was a navy-blue one-piece chosen by her mother. She wore shorts as well, book and towel clasped against her chest, yet she blushed.
“You don’t suppose,” he said, “that Generalissima has spies in these woods? I’ve heard there’s a flogging room in the cellar of HQ.”
“Not kidding,” he said.
“Yes you are.”
Malachy’s prim expression broke. “Pretty martial around here, don’t you think? And can you believe all the Iron Curtain accents?”
“What did you expect, the cast of Captain Kangaroo?”
This made him laugh. “Maybe Hogan’s Heroes.”
“You mean, we should dig a tunnel and escape?”
“We could steal those little mallets Dorian uses to play his glockenspiel.” Malachy had swiveled to face her. He sat cross-legged, his calves pale and sparsely freckled, his bare feet long and bony.
He shaded his eyes. “Sit, or I’ll go blind. And then I won’t be able to see my music, and my brilliant symphonic career will flash before my irradiated eyeballs.”
She unrolled her towel and sat, facing him. He had no book or other obvious diversion. Was he there to meet someone? What a perfect place for a private meeting.
“So are you aware,” said Malachy, “that Rhonda would pay me a nice reward to drown you here and now?”
Daphne laughed nervously. She and Malachy played together in Chamber One; Rhonda was her counterpart, a cellist in Chamber Two. Openly and cheerfully competitive, she’d announced at their first dinner that anyone assigned the swan solo in the Saint-Saëns was clearly the director’s pet. (Daphne might say the same of Malachy, chosen to play “Volière.”)
“I just got lucky,” said Daphne.
“No false modesty allowed,” said Malachy. “They decided our parts based on our auditions. Nothing here happens by accident. You know that.”
“I guess.” She didn’t like talking about the ranking they all deplored yet knew had to be a part of their lives forever if they wanted to succeed. “So are you from one of those musical families where everybody plays something different?”
He smirked. “Like the Jackson Five? There’s a picture to savor. No, I’m it. The one who got whatever genetic mutation makes our subspecies behave the way we do. My brother and sister see me as the weirdo. The family fruitcake. Which is a huge relief to them. They get to be the normal ones.”
“So maybe I’ve got it, too. The mutation. Mom plays piano, but Christmas carols. Hymns. She subs for the church organist. Actually, I’m not sure how I got into this place.”
“Give it up, Swan. They’ve got their eye on you here. I saw our taskmistress smile yesterday in the middle of your solo. For about a tenth of a second. I didn’t think she had those muscles in her cheeks.” Natalya Skovoroda, the conductor of Chamber One, was Ukrainian, with a dense, porridgelike accent. Her face—a prime object, morning after morning, of Daphne’s most devoted concentration—was as round and pale as a dinner plate, mesmerizingly smooth for someone who scowled so much. Beneath that scowl, Daphne and her fellow musicians had grown close to one another quickly, like a band of miscellaneous hostages.
Malachy leaned toward Daphne. “You have that cello stripped naked.”
“Is that a compliment?” Because he sat almost directly behind her during morning rehearsal, she hardly ever saw his face. It was long and serious, his eyes a frosty blue that made him look all-seeing, older in a way that was spooky but cool. Across his nose—narrow like the rest of him—a scant dash of freckles stood out sharply, distinct as granules of pepper.
A speedboat careened raucously past, skimming the water, passengers shrieking as it bounced up and down. For a moment, they let it capture their attention.
Daphne started to stand up. “I should go wait for a phone. Haven’t called home in a couple of days.”
“No,” he said. “You should stay and listen to one of my limericks.”
“I’m working on a suite of limericks about our wardens.”
Daphne shifted on her towel. “Well. Sure.”
Malachy cleared his throat and sat up even straighter. He cocked his head at a dramatic angle toward the lake, as if posing for a portrait.
A Soviet chick named Nah-tail-ya
Said, “Eef you play flat, I veel flail ya,
But come to my room
Vare I’ll bare my bazoom.
Maybe let you peek at holy grail-ya.”
Blood rushed to Daphne’s face. She felt both thrilled and appalled.
He turned to her, widened his eyes. “Svahn? May vee haff your creeteek?”
She covered her mouth, trying to repress the spasms of laughter. “Oh my gosh, that is so . . . obscene!”
“Uh-oh. I’ve shocked you. See, I told you I’m a weirdo.”
“Oh my God.”
“Here, I’ll give you something just a bit tamer. Appetizer to next week’s celebrity recital.” Again he struck his pose.
There once was a diva named Esme
With a lengthy and worldly résumé.
Listed way at the end
Was her tendency to bend
Quite far over and trill, “Yes you may.”
“You are horrid!” Daphne cried. But she couldn’t stop laughing.
Excerpted from And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass. Copyright © 2014 by Julia Glass. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Julia Glass latest novel, And the Dark Sacred Night, is being published by Pantheon in April. She is the author of Three Junes, winner of the 2002 National Book Award for Fiction; The Whole World Over; I See You Everywhere, winner of the 2009 Binghamton University John Gardner Book Award; and The Widower’s Tale. Her essays have been widely anthologized. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Glass also teaches fiction writing, most frequently at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She lives with her family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
1. Kit’s wife, Sandra, tells him, “I think you need to move, I mean pry yourself free from a place that’s become so familiar you simply can’t see it” (p. 22). Have you ever come to a place in your life where you felt stuck? How did you resolve this?
2. Why do you think Daphne insists on keeping the name of Kit’s father a secret? Whom is she protecting?
3. Daphne tells Kits that he “does not get to know everything” just because he wants to. Do you think Daphne owes Kit the name of his father?
4. If you were Kit, do you think you could/would have waited so long to find your father? Do you think men and women have different attitudes toward “finding” their lost family connections?
5. Describe Kit and Daphne’s relationship. How does this change throughout the book?
6. Do you see any parallels between Kit’s relationship with Daphne and Malachy’s relationship with Lucinda? If you read Three Junes, what do you bring from that book about the latter relationship? Knowing what you know from this book, do you think you’d feel differently about either of those characters if you went back to reread Three Junes?
7. Daphne accepted Lucinda’s help with Kit for the first few years of his life. What do you think about her cutting off that connection so abruptly? Can you empathize with her reasons for doing so?
8. Lucinda has yearned for decades to reconnect with Kit. Do you think she should have done that on her own, without waiting for him to take the initiative? Or do you think the initiative always has to come from the child/grandchild?
9. “Things that make sense don’t always make sense” (p. 40). Jasper says this to Daphne in reference to her plan to move with Kit closer to her school. Do you think she is already planning to leave that marriage, or is Jasper missing important hints that he is already losing her?
10. What do you think about Daphne and Malachy’s relationship as teenagers at the music camp? How do you think the culture of the camp itself affects the way she feels about him?
11. Did you have a magical time or place in your life similar to that summer?
12. Malachy is a central figure in this work, but we cannot know what he felt or what he thought. How does this affect the people in the story? What do you think about his complete removal of himself from Daphne and Kit’s life—and his father’s tacit support of that distance?
13. Forgiveness is a prevalent theme. Discuss some of the characters who need to give and seek forgiveness in the book. Are some of the “crimes” they’ve committed unforgivable?
14. In your view, who has the most to forgive? Who most deserves forgiveness? Who most needs it?
15. Lucinda admits to herself that she loved Malachy more than her other children—but it’s clear they realize this. What do you think will happen, in the future, as Malachy’s “lost” son is absorbed into the family, especially after Lucinda’s death?
16. Lucinda gets mad at Zeke for hiding Malachy’s need to know of Kit, and gets mad at Jonathan for hiding his homosexuality from Malachy as well as from his parents. Do you think these secrets were justified?
17. At one point, a woman who was clearly a client of Lucinda’s at The House confronts her on the street and tells her that Lucinda ruined her life. What do you think about the work Lucinda did, inspired by her faith, to help young single mothers have and raise babies on their own in an era when they might have had other choices?
18. The Burnses’ barn, the Shed at the music camp, Jasper’s crow’s nest: All of these structures hold meaning for the characters involved. Are there places in your life that you feel as strongly about?
19. The character Fenno McLeod, the protagonist from Julia Glass’s novel Three Junes, returns as a key point of view near the end of the book. If you read that earlier novel, how does it feel to meet him again in this different context? What do you think about his changed circumstances and his relationship with Walter Kinderman (a pivotal character in Glass’s The Whole World Over)?
20. In the end, do you think Kit found what he was looking for?
21. When Daphne finally revisits the music camp, along with her second husband and Kit, do you think she is changed by facing down this fateful place in her past?
22. Similarly, do you think Fenno is changed by giving up the artifacts of Malachy that he has kept to himself, especially the box of letters and photos? How do you think Kit will respond to that gift?
23. Julia Glass fills her novels with vivid “cameo” characters, such as Loraina and Rayburn in Jasper’s part of the book, or Matthew in Lucinda’s. Do you have a favorite among these characters—or wish that some of them had been given larger roles?
24. What character in this story do you most identify with, and why?