What Happens at Night opens with a man and his wife on a train halted in a forest in deep snow. They take a taxi to the Grand Imperial Hotel, where in the stately lobby the unsmiling staff are silent and the period decor is intimidating. In this unheimlich atmosphere a strange back story is almost casually revealed. The wife is dying from stage-four uterine cancer and the couple have come from New York to this ‘godforsaken place’ in order to adopt a baby, a decision taken after eleven years of unhappy marriage and several miscarriages. Their conversations conceal depths of resentment: ‘You’re always – you never – you always abjure’; ‘Why were you like that? … It seemed perverse.’ During the long dark nights, the couple sleep deeply in their cold bedroom and eat elaborate food under the chandeliers of the hotel’s vast restaurant, trying to keep apart from each other as they persist with their unlikely mission.
Peter Cameron likes to lure the reader into an unfamiliar world, a dreamlike land where the signs are misleading and the people hard to read. He fixes attention on the visual, selecting objects or settings to evoke unease. In the hotel there are unfamiliar items, such as a