Burial, Graverobbing, and Lilliet Berne: The Themes of Death and Mourning in The Queen of the Night

I am about a quarter of the way through Alexander Chee’s new epic, The Queen of the Night, a novel set in late nineteenth century Paris about Lilliet Berne, a phenomenal opera singer, as gorgeous and alluring as she is cold, who possesses the rare but tragic soprano Falcon singing voice. Yet Lilliet is not who she says she is, and when she gets an opportunity for an original role that she so covets for herself in the opera, she is bewildered that it seems to be based on intimate details of her past. Someone has betrayed her, and she is determined to find out who. Lilliet’s past is a complicated one. She constantly re-invents her identity to survive. Often, it is through death that she finds her crucial moments of re-birth.

I will admit that what sold me on picking up this book was that on the back cover, Karen Russell commented that “Lilliet Berne steals her name from a gravestone and launches into a life of full-throated song.”

It is from a New York grave, on a widower’s farm, that Lilliet finds her namesake:

The name I took was from a smaller stone, farther back, older. She had died three years before these new ones, at the age of three. her last name was different from the rest. She could have been a sister’s child. I said it aloud in the air, a whisper.

Lilliet Berne.

Death softly haunts this story; Lilliet’s story. She grew up on the frontier in Minnesota, where her name was not Lilliet, but a name unknown. When her family dies, she builds their coffins and buries them. Her mother is the last one to be buried.

The coffin I made was shabby and uneven, but sealed tight. I ran my hand through it as I imagined my mother at her final rest. It wasn’t right; I hadn’t the skills for more than a rough box. And yet this was all I knew how to do.

Her past behind her, she travels to New York and christens herself with a new name, before heading to Europe as a member of the circus. And it is here, in the Old World, that she will again use death to re-invent herself.

When her cell mate, La Muette (the mute) dies, and Lilliet becomes her to gain her freedom and escape from jail:

I wouldn’t be stealing from the dead-she couldn’t use her future, and I could. The only person it would matter to was me.

Perhaps in a yet another new death she will be re-born again. I have just left Lilliet as she is trying to get the attention of the once beautiful Comtesse de Castiglione:

The apartment looked, from the street, as if the widow’s weeds she’d put on in 1867 had bloomed over the years until they’d made a black hood over her entire life… It was said she mourned her beauty, which people still spoke of as of a vanished champion from another age. She had buried herself alive in public, on one of Paris’s most fashionable streets.

The Queen of the Night is enthralling so far, and I’m very much enjoying the details that Chee so beautifully incorporates of the nineteenth century cult of death and mourning.

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