Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

The main character in “A Sudden Light” is Trevor, a fourteen-year-old boy, who spends the summer in his family’s giant estate. His father and aunt are trying to convince their ailing father to sell it, since it’s very valuable and they’re poor. However, the house is haunted by the ghost of Ben, the son of the family’s patriarch, Elijah Riddell. Here’s the thing: Ben believes that the North Estate ought to be returned to nature after the family stops living there, and he won’t move on with his life (well, afterlife), until after his wish is fulfilled.
The novel has beautiful prose, which manages to convey the dark and disturbing setting very effectively. I actually took the time to highlight some passages I thought were exceptionally good, which is not something I do very often.
The family dynamics and the secrets were well crafted and intriguing, and the author managed to make the supernatural elements fit in quite nicely. Some of the chapters of this book were wonderful, worthy of a five stars rating.
A pity that a good chunk of the novel, especially in the beginning and in the middle, was quite boring.It took several pages for the action to start and around fifty percent, I noticed the novel had become quite repetitive. Most of the novel follows this formula:  
  1. Trevor has convenient dreams-hallucinations that explain Ben’s life story.
  2. Trevor wakes up and Ben creepily whispers his name and then vanishes.
  3. Trevor lusts after his crazy aunt Serena.
  4. Trevor goes exploring and finds a convenient info-dumping diary or letter. Good thing everybody writes down everything that happens to them (even their deepest secrets) and is rubbish at hiding their writings.
  5. Trevor reflects on how Progress Is Bad and We Are One (picture “Circle of Life” from the Lion King playing in the distance).
  6. Trevor talks to his demented grandfather.
  7. Trevor’s father tries to get Grandpa Samuel to give up the house and fails. During this, Trevor’s thoughts process goes like this: “If we sell the estate, Mom and Dad will get back together! But Ben won’t be pleased. But I’ll be happy! But  Ben!”
  8. Trevor goes to sleep.
  9. Rinse and repeat.

This routine it made me want to give up on the book. Thankfully, I didn’t, otherwise I would have missed the truly excellent final chapters.
The plot is pretty straightforward and I could see most of the twists coming from miles away, also because the author uses foreshadowing extensively. There was one instance where I was surprised, which I appreciated.
The book has a rather strong message, which sometimes takes the forefront, relegating the plot to the backseat. As it’s a novel and not an essay, this should not happen. Plot and character development come first and the message ought to be conveyed subtly to the reader. In this case, the reader gets metaphorically smacked over the head with it over and over again. Also, the book takes a simplistic approach to its own theme. In the end, it all comes down to good versus evil. Everything is black and white, with no shades of gray. This lack of complexity makes the message feel unrealistic, causing it to fall flat. In "A Sudden Light", progress is depicted as something negative, because of the effects it has on nature. What the book fails to acknowledge is that progress is what gives humans the possibility to spend time concerning ourselves with love, the meaning of live and the arts. Without progress, we'd have to spend our lives fighting for survival, instead. At one point, Ben critiques the building of sewers. Sewers, that improved the living conditions in cities greatly, and diminished illnesses. I really wish that the positive aspects of progress were acknowledged in the novel next to its negative consequences. It would have made it much more interesting, and the message would have been more powerful and realistic.  
There are also some issues with the dialogues, as they are often awkward. We have a saying in Italy: “parlare come un libro stampato”. It literally means “to talk like a printed book”. That’s how the people in this novel talk. Never, at any point, do they express themselves as actual people do. If it was one or two characters who did this, I wouldn’t mind. It’d chalk it to them having a particular voice. But everyone does that.
Oh wait, no, I remembered. The main character’s daughter, who only appears in the epilogue and has roughly two lines, talks like a real human being. But she's the only one.  
“A Sudden Light” had a lot of potential. It truly might have been a wonderful book, one of the best I have read this year. As it is, I liked it, but nothing more that that.


I received this book as an eARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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