Know the Night is an impressive debut for author Maria Mutch, whose literary memoir maintains that magical balance between lyricism and realism. Occupying the liminal and flexible space of darkness, Mutch’s book takes place between midnight and six a.m., yet spans the years that the author’s son Gabriel was unable to sleep continuously through the night.
Gabriel, whose own story unfolds through the book, begins as a precocious toddler with Down Syndrome. As he grows older, he is also diagnosed with autism, and Mutch describes the experience of multiple-disability parenting with sincerity and honesty. The story is not sugarcoated. She does not shy away from describing the sleep deprivation, isolation, or difficulty of parenting, nor does she simplify the complexity of Gabriel. Some accounts might focus solely on the parent, rendering the child as a one-dimensional challenge to be overcome. Instead we come to understand Gabriel as a unique individual, as someone who attends school, interacts with his sibling, and loves jazz. In fact, some of the most treasured scenes of the book are when, in the wee hours of the morning, we see Gabriel and Mutch go to jazz clubs in the city, and experience his joy at the music.
At nighttime, when few are awake and everything seems far more insulated and singular, Mutch relies on the stories of others who have braved the night and survived: polar explorers. She orders book after book about Antarctic expeditions, hearing them arrive with a thump on her doorstep.
In particular, she focuses on the story of Admiral Richard Byrd, who lived completely alone in the Antarctic winter for several months. His account of that time, aptly and simply called Alone, becomes a touchstone for Mutch. She finds meaning in what he chose to take with him (it seems artic explorers are never without books or chocolate), and finds solace and company in his survival, despite the never-ending night and the pressure of solitude. Mutch interweaves the story of Byrd seamlessly with her own, allowing the parallels to exist side-by-side on the page without drawing attention. We understand, as readers, that her unique parenthood, located so deeply within the night and with no help from others, is its own kind of exploration and survival.
It is also worth noting the language of this book. The skill with which Mutch describes her experience is quite impressive; her words and sentences flow with a certain grace and eloquence typically reserved for poetry and that one rarely finds in memoir. Her lyricism makes for a sumptuous read. Even when describing the harsh and unrelenting Antarctic winter, it is as if the velvet of night has laced the paragraphs. It is this lushness of language that makes the book so pleasurable to read, balancing the sometimes-difficult subject matter with insight and elegance.
It is unusual to find a mother-son story in this literary market, and Know the Night is a remarkable representation of what that kind of story can be. As dawn breaks in the book, the reader comes to find that, ultimately, this is a love story, something very universal and lovely, and utterly worth the read.
Know the Night
Simon and Schuester
March 25, 2014
Review by Arielle Yarwood