The Bottom Line: For fans of Susanna Clark’s Piranesi, The Midnight Cafe reads like an immersive fever dream that fans of magical realism will love.
Set in the dark underbelly of Trinidad and Tobago, The Midnight Cafe is a place “where the night creatures gather” according to Bishop, a self-appointed champion of marginalized people. Bishop seems to exist somewhere between the land of the living and the dead, and with the clap of his hands, Bishop makes spirits and people appear to do his bidding. His dialogue reads like a blend of stinging truth, metaphor and riddle, and at times his ambitions and sacrifices seem almost Christ-like.
Enter corrupt police inspector David Randolph, whose granddaughter can only be saved by an expensive operation that he cannot afford. After admonishing Randolph for his wickedness, Bishop agrees to help him by offering him half a million dollars, though he stresses that it’s not a gift. He further points him to the High Priestess in the midnight cafe.
We can’t overstate how vivid author J.R. Peter’s prose is. Each scene is immaculately constructed and his characters’ reactions to the often haunting happenings feels fully believable. At the same time, Peter keeps readers guessing about what is and is not real throughout. This includes, at times, the identity of core characters and whether they are living or dead. At one point, a bewildered character named Cliffie begs a person who comes to him, “Let me see you. Turn on the light.” Readers may feel similarly throughout, but fans of magical realism – for example, anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Susanna Clark’s runaway hit Piranesi – will relish Peter’s cryptic approach.
One of the book’s strong suits is its use of freedom as a theme. Just as Randolph wishes to free his daughter of the illness that threatens her life, a lot more is at stake for the cast in general: freedom from the law, freedom from societal burdens, and freedom of psychological torment, just to name a few. The effect is subtle, but it adds up to become a powerful driving force by the story’s end.