Comes The Night narrates the final days of an American girl’s breakdown. Nashville teenager Meade Harden is living in France with her twin brother, Ben Ho, a student at the École Des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Their plastic-surgeon father is bankrolling them, paying for their lavish apartment and Meade’s tuition at a French cookery school – but while Ben’s making the most of his time in France, making paintings and sculptures and dating a fellow student, Meade’s floundering. Obsessed with her brother but rebuffed by him, and abandoned by her parents, she starts dating a photographer who hooks her up with a modelling contract. Already bulimic, Meade quickly descends into full-blown anorexia. Her lover, Majid, turns out to be a former Iranian political prisoner who uses violent sex as a way to work through his own traumas – and his heroin stash does nothing to alleviate Meade’s escalating prescription drug habit. Ben tries to help her – but is it too little, too late?
Comes The Night is Hollis Hampton-Jones’ second novel; I haven’t read the first (Vicious Spring), so I couldn’t say how this one compares to the author’s own previous work, but I can definitely rattle off a string of other comparisons: Tender is The Night (French setting, rich American characters, dysfunctional families and couples – even the title of the book); Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation (and the rest of the fucked-up-girl cannon, though of course this one‘s fiction, not memoir); maybe Flowers in the Attic (though the incest here never quite comes to fruition); and, my favourite, the complete works of Brett Easton Ellis, with particular reference to Less Than Zero. Plath’s daddy-issues, body-consciousness and poeticism are definitely echoed throughout Comes The Night, and the cover design (close-up of a girl’s face, wispy hair, pink text) implies a target audience of emotional, unstable females who’ll relate to poor Meade’s struggles, and so the Plath angle will work as a hook there, but I think that Easton-Ellis is the more obvious influence: Hampton-Jones’ characters have the same dead-eye stare, the alienated, drug-numbed rich-kid misery, pushing towards oblivion, that made Less Than Zero such a hit. Comes The Night, however, hasn’t got that originality: Meade’s self-destructive slide may be well-drawn, but it’s neither shocking nor particularly revealing, and I don’t think it will ultimately be very memorable. Hampton-Jones paints a hallucinatory, almost beautiful picture of a girl’s disintegration, but it’s not far from a paint-by-numbers job. From the moment Meade first vomits her lunch into the toilet bowl, you’re thinking, anorexia, and when the vial of ‘the essence of Afghan poppies’ makes an appearance, the writing’s on the wall. It’s a predictable story with a predictable ending.
It’s not all bad, mind. The writing’s wonderful in places. Meade’s first person narration is pretty convincing and engaging; we get a strong sense of her mounting claustrophobia and panic – and there’s moments of biting comedy, too:
‘I think mornings can pretty much be written off, anyway. They’re just a matter of controlled collateral damage.’
Meade’s relationship with her brother is an interesting one, but I wish Hampton-Jones had given us more, there: other than a pair of disengaged parents and a poor-little-rich-girl background, there’s not much motivation given for her pretty extreme attachment to her twin, or her need to destroy herself with purging and drugs. And that’s the trouble throughout – a lack of convincing motivation for the rather dramatic situations in the novel. There’s a lot of use of doubles – Meade and Ben, Meade and Linda, Meade and another model, Ben and Majid – and I guess it’s all there to shore up the central Meade/Ben relationship, but Ben Ho himself is pretty one-dimensional, as is the obsessive twin-relationship, which is remarkable only for its existence, not its rationale. Meade’s hyperbolic reminiscences of life in utero, birth and very early childhood detract from the realism of the novel and explain little, and her memories of horse-riding and painting with her brother are fairly flimsy hooks on which to snag the messed-up present of their relationship. Ben himself pops in and out of the narrative, and his presence or absence is a constant theme for Meade, but he never really comes to life in a way that might explain why Meade would be so fixated upon him. Then there’s Majid: he’s been a political prisoner and has been tortured, okay, but there’s no exploration of this, no real engagement with his politics or grief, and using S&M as a grief substitute is a little hackneyed.
And the plot itself is pretty light. Eating disorders, sex, drugs and modelling; Meade is swept along by a series of fortuitous or unfortunate events and demonstrates very little agency, so there’s no real sense of consequence or tension. She gets into modelling ridiculously easily – Hampton-Jones’ experience of the fashion world notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s quite that simple to get a major catwalk show or a shoot with Vogue. Meade’s a pretty savvy kid – she knows her pills – and so her unquestioning sampling of Majid’s heroin comes across, at best, as naïve, or, at worst, lazy writing. By the end, I’d lost sympathy; though she’s a persuasive narrator for much of the novel, Meade’s predicament seems largely of her own making and not a necessary result of some more tragic underlying story – unlike Easton Ellis’s scathing condemnations of American society.
Any Cop?: It starts off well but then meanders along in pretty well-worn grooves. It’s short and a quick read, and it’ll probably appeal to teenagers who haven’t already read Plath and Easton Ellis, but I don’t think it’ll convince anybody who’s already well-versed in the literature of miserable youth. Hampton-Jones can certainly write – she just needs to come up with a more convincing scenario to showcase her skills.