The Night Language

Written by David Rocklin
Review by Jeanne Greene

The British expedition to Abyssinia in 1868 is swift, bloody, and expensive. After the death of the Abyssinian king, the Army takes his young son, Prince Alamayou, to Britain, where Queen Victoria meets and expresses an interest in the boy. Rocklin has plucked a thread from British history and spun it into a lush and intricate novel.

Prince Alamayou, a frightened teenager who speaks no English, arrives at the court at Windsor accompanied by Philip Layard, the only other man of color on the ship, who is presumed to understand him. Queen Victoria, 49, still in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert, dead seven years, empathizes with the recently orphaned boy. When Alamayou is unable to sleep at night, she allows him to sit with her, sharing her grief in silence. Members of the royal household and dignitaries like the Princess Louise and artist Edward Corbould are courteous to Alamayou. But, even without a common language, two young men unaccustomed to life at court have more in common than either does with the Queen. Phillip is kind, and Alamayou falls in love. When the Queen insists on hearing his story, using a translator, Alamayou tells her everything, including his love for Philip. Homosexuality is illegal in Britain. If Parliament sends Alamayou back to Abyssinia for trial, the prince will die. His life is in the hands of Queen Victoria. Or is it?

Using alternating time periods, Rocklin draws a sharp contrast between the naïve young prince in 1868 and the mature artist who, in 1900, unravels the mystery of Alamayou’s fate. This is a beautifully written and touching love story of interest to all adult readers, particularly (but not exclusively) those interested in minority rights and British history.