This flaw is common among books that advertise themselves as “a cultural history” of this or that singular or abstract entity – the sea, say, or the colour mauve or cod. Books of this type are capacious without being comprehensive and selective while feigning objectivity; they land somewhere between the academic and the personal, with neither the former’s rigour – by which new, if highly specialized, insights are gleaned – nor the latter’s self- conscious and purposive skew, which in turn yields emotional richness. Nina Edwards’s book is, then, a kind of twilight form, insufficiently enlightening and yet too uneasy in the subject’s murkier depths to truly satisfy.
Given the enormous scope of her subject matter (from clothing to Christianity, electricity to the Enlightenment, Islam to the Industrial revolution, black holes to Steve Bannon, and Milton to the moon), it’s perhaps inevitable that some topics receive rather scant treatment (on one page the jump from disembowelling to unlit coastal paths is somewhat unnerving). But, for the most part, Edwards’s approach is considered and engaging as she explores the curious paradoxes and possibilities of ethereal half-shadows and ‘umbral blackness’. As Van Gogh once remarked to his brother: ‘The night is more alive and richly coloured than the day.’