It’s easy to say you’ll write a review, isn’t it? It’s easy to say it and be sent an advanced review copy of a book then actually read that book. But getting off your backside—a backside whose vastness is exacerbated by a frankly obscene diet of peppermint creams and Maoam Pinballs—and writing the review is quite another matter.
Especially when you have lots of very important things to do.
Especially when you are lazy-so-very-lazy.
But I promised a review, so a review I shall write…
It’s hard not to be excited at the prospect of a new novel by someone whose previous books have titles like The Art of Racing in the Rain and Raven Stole the Moon. Especially when the new novel is a supernatural coming-of-age story and, therefore, bang up my street.
It’s also hard not to be excited by a book with this cover:
So, Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light was, all things considered, right excitin’.
The story revolves around a kid, Trevor Riddell, as he comes to terms with his parents going through a trial separation and likely divorce. As part of the separation, his mother has returned to her family home in England and his father has returned to his, Riddell House—quite literally built on the timber which made the Riddell family very, very wealthy once upon a time—taking Trevor with him.
Really, Trevor’s just been brought along for the ride, though, because the trip is less about connecting with his roots to a family who made an awful lot of money—with, perhaps, a proportionate lack of ethics—in the timber trade, and more about Trevor’s father and aunt attempting to sell the huge arboreal mansion and live their lives on the resultant dollars.
It’s a relatively small cast of characters. There’s Trevor, who narrates the entire story, his father — Jones, Aunt Serena, and Grandpa Samuel.
Then there are the ghosts.
The initial plot centres on Jones and Serena’s plans to take ownership of Riddell House from their father, Samuel—he is, after all, suffering from dementia, what with hearing all those peculiar sounds in the night; the sounds of his dead wife dancing in the ballroom, and therefore unable to act in sound mind—so they can sell the land off to some property developers, making enough money to all live happily ever after.
Trevor is initially indifferent, perhaps just bordering on uncomfortable—that discomfort increases the closer he gets to Grandpa Samuel—about the whole thing. But he chooses to believe the money from selling the house could well be a defining factor in his parents getting back together. So in that sense, he’s happy to go along with it.
But as he rattles around the enormous house, he makes some discoveries that change his mind entirely, putting him in direct opposition with his father and aunt. At first it’s just old letters and diaries, then it’s the dreams, then it’s the usual symptoms of a good old fashioned haunting: the creaking floorboards, the inexplicable sounds, the disappearing items, and the near-sightings. All those things push Trevor to dig deeper into the family history.
What he finds is a promise made by Trevor’s great-great-grandfather, Elijah, to his son, Ben. A promise that Riddell House, and the land it sits on, will one day be left to return to the dirt and trees from which it was constructed. It’s a promise that will be broken if Jones and Serena get their way, and the ghosts of Riddell House won’t let them push their plans through unopposed. They just need Trevor’s help.
A Sudden Light is more complex than the small cast would suggest. In addition to the main story, there’s a family history—told mainly through several diary entries, letters, and interactions with ghosts—and a story of homosexuality, and the attempts of a father to cover up his son’s indiscretions, in less enlightened times.
Stein’s writing is very good. Good enough that I’ll go back and read his previous novels. My only frustration was in delivering so much of the backstory through just transferring the diary entries and letters verbatim into Trevor’s narrative. It just sometimes feels a little ‘easy’ in novels when the main character gets so many answers presented to them. That said, those sections are all very nicely written, as per the rest of the book, and I really did enjoy the backstory. So while I did pick up on the device, it certainly didn’t detract from the book.
That one thing aside, this book is basically everything I like: ghosts, nostalgia, humour, family history, and A Bit Of A Mystery. The whole thing moves along at pace, the backstory of Trevor’s ancestors is thoughtful and very nicely written, and, in particular, Ben’s story is handled with just the right amount of sadness, gravity, and hope. Stein manages to bring the various threads together by the end, reaching an inevitable, but satisfying, conclusion.
I’ve already recommended this to friends, praising the premise, the writing style, the humour, and the realistic characterisations. And now I recommend it to you too.
So, there you go. I finally got off my enormous arse and wrote the review. That’s the second one I’ve done recently; I should probably come up with some sort of scoring system. That said, stars seem boring and I’m not Paul Ross so I’m not about to do beer bottles. Maybe I’ll just do my own face at a jaunty angle.
What author wouldn’t be delighted to receive X number of Tilted Matthew Heads?
“Terrible idea,” you say? “Nobody wants to see your stupid, gormless f—”