Friday, July 25, 2014

A Sudden Light - Book Review

Title: A Sudden Light
Author: Garth Stein
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 400
First Published: Sept 2014

ARC review

Garth Stein paints a detailed and albeit spooky tale of an elaborate family’s struggle to deal with its secrets and promises. Trevor, the current generation Riddell who narrates the story, is a fourteen-year old who is on the brink of his boyhood, facing a possible divorce between his parents, being a teenager in general. A summer trip that his father forces him to accompany him on changes his life forever to come. It is during this trip that Trevor peels at the layers his family hides behind, of promises made, forbidden love long lost, evil selfish schemes being hatched and a big chunk of inheritance holding up the equation.

Can Trevor make the right choices that would lead his parents to stay together and his family to finally find some respite from the ghosts that have been haunting them for generations? (Pun intended)

This is a review of the ARC I received from the publisher on NetGalley. The book is set to hit stores on September 30th, 2014. This review contains spoilers. Only ye of the brave heart that can tolerate them shall venture further :) All the other ye's can hang around at the pub, have a couple of drinks and come back later.

What worked for me

1 - Language and narration – Both terrific. Stein writes intelligent and evocative prose that hooks you right in. There are no unnecessary ramblings and the multiple narrative tools (dreams and letters aside from the narrator) do much to ease your reading experience. There’s no trouble being engrossed.
2 - Characterization – Trevor was delightfully reasonable amidst the horde of teenage boy characters being portrayed as souls in the singular pursuit of achieving an erection. Trevor likes to play detective and he is smart enough to snoop around and piece things together. A huge plus. The other characters fill in as required. They are quite fixed in their roles but their dimensionality does not affect the genre framework so no issues there. (I’ll pick a bone later around this.*)
3 - Logic, Pacing and Ending – The plot flows neatly from start to end with the various points of view accounted for satisfactorily. There was one shocking element in the climax that added to the overall effect and sealed the deal. Good job!

What did not work for me

1 - Serena* – Why did Serena have to be portrayed as an incestuous personality? Wasn't she already effective in her diabolical, manipulative role? It would've still worked if she had been one of those relatives who take to extreme measures to ensure they get what they want. Murderous, I could've handled. But incestuous? Hmmm…

2 - Trevor being a little too mature – At times, when the narrative gets going, you forget that the older Trevor is telling you the story. A few minor details don’t sit well in that aspect. For example, at one point he says he has read enough Kafka to understand the goings-on. Fourteen-year-olds drunk on Kafka? Stein does have him dismissing his speculations now and then reasoning that he is just a kid and he doesn't have the life experience to understand the situation – the equilibrium isn't quite achieved. But, minor thorn really.

Intelligent writing that packs emotion, thrill and mystery throughout.



Off-Shoot Contemplation

This book runs on the strong theme that over-exploitation of a resource is leading to a loss of balance in nature thereby suggesting that what we take must be returned to the source to replenish it.  While I agree with this idea, (it makes sense to maintain a source so it can still remain a source) I am not very sure about certain arguments presented in the book. For one, the blame placed on Elijah for having been the sole perpetrator of such an uneven give and take. The extravagant North Estate with its palatial construction does scream unfairness, but there are instances when Ben and others object to trees being cut down at all (to be used to lay rail-roads for example).

Let’s think about this for a moment. Does that mean trees cannot be used at all for any purpose whatsoever? How about for building homes? Or furniture? Or as logs for fireplaces? Even if we go by the logic that what is taken must in due time be returned, with the turn of the century and the increase in population, wouldn't it only be logical that consumption has gone up? Post the 1900s with the improvements in medicine and therapy, population keeps growing steadily. How then would it be possible to force equilibrium when most of the world is forever constantly consuming? How do you decide who gets to use something and who doesn't?

Returning the North Estate to the forest floor might be a whim that serves as a metaphor for the general idea but I do not think it is a workable system in general. Resources are diverse and population has long gone beyond a point of no-return. One family assuaging their guilt over what they consumed centuries ago is not the solution. The Estate eventually gets turned into a park, but what would happen ten years down the line, when people from the city move to the countryside because of over-crowding?

These are just a few questions that I had, while reading about the whole exploitation argument. It seemed like a lopsided prescription that does not account for the practicality of human habitation. I'm not saying reclamation is wrong. I'm just saying blatant returns are not the right way to go about piecing the planet together.

What do you think?