Review: A Sudden Light

I read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein a few years ago and loved it. It’s the kind of story that you can’t put down, even if you want to, and admittedly there were times I did want to. That story is quite tragic, but the prose was so engaging that I couldn’t stop. And the narrator, a dog and best friend to the protagonist, was both unique and a great storyteller. When I heard Garth Stein was writing another novel, I couldn’t wait. And then I read the description and found that I wasn’t sure it was up my alley. It seemed to be a mix of a family drama with historical fiction and an oddly placed ghost story  that came together to chart the rise and fall of a timber baron family in the Pacific Northwest. None of these genres or topics are ones that I tend to read. And while Stein is known for his unique narrators, this time he chose a teenaged boy. I couldn’t imagine that I would care what he had to say. But, Stein proved me wrong.

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

True, A Sudden Light is imbued with all those genres and topics that didn’t seem to interest me, however, it manages to be something wholly itself, filled with poetic language and stunning imagery that Garth Stein has conjured as if by magic. And Trevor, the narrator and the last living heir to the Riddell family property, is both mature and sympathetic, making him the perfect foil for the rest of the broken family he’s fighting to save. Stein sprinkles his narrative with simple truths, revealing his ability to create characters that manage to be both broken and perceptive, often offering up piercing insights into the human condition.

“And all journeys begin with hope; how they resolve is another matter” (p. 148).

The book takes place in two timelines, entwining the present, where Trevor attempts to save his parent’s marriage by helping his father sell off the family property, with the past. The saga of the Riddell family is told through a ghost’s flashbacks tracing the rise of the timber baron Elijah  Riddell through the family’s fall from fortune over the course of a few generations. The story is rounded out with a patriarch battling dementia, an aunt who has gone a little crazy in the old house, and a ghost that might or might not have Trevor’s best interests at heart. As Trevor explores his family’s past, he is given the keys to save his family’s future as well as lessons on living life well.
“Perhaps that’s what life is about – the search for such a connection. The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand.” (p. 146)
The book is populated with three-dimensional characters, each with a secret to hide that can help Trevor further unlock the tragedies that haunt his family. One of the creepiest and yet most intriguing characters was Trevor’s aunt. She was left behind to care for her father when she was just a teenager and has been trapped by this burden ever since, making her quite sympathetic at first. As the chapters pass, this quirky aunt begins to reveal a deep-set insanity that has crept in over the years. And yet, she has some of the most insightful passages:
“‘Most of us drag around our misdeeds like giant dead birds tied to our necks; we condemn ourselves to telling every stranger we meet the story of our anguish and inadequacies, hoping that one day we will be forgiven, hoping that we will find a person who will look at us and pretend to ignore the ridiculous dead birds hanging from our sunburned and weather-beaten necks. And if we find that person, and if we don’t hate him for not hating us, if we don’t hold him in contempt for not treating us contemptuously, as we expect to be treated-nay, as we demand to be treated-well, that person will be something of a soul mate, I imagine. That’s got to be in the definition somewhere…'” (p. 281).
You’ll find yourself staying up late just to finish this book and it will be over far to soon. If I were to reread it right now, I know it would still be as surprising and worthwhile as the first read-through. These are the books I love: Those that surprise me because I feel like the descriptions don’t even hint at everything the story has to offer. And those that offer so much depth that they can be reread over and over, each read-through providing something new to discover that we missed the first time in our headlong rush to finish because we couldn’t wait to find out what happens.

One thought on “Review: A Sudden Light

  1. Pingback: Goodbye 2014: My year in review | Beta Librarian

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