Book of the Month Club: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

a sudden light a sudden light

I reached the threshold and peered around the edges of the door and saw the record player and someone dancing like a ghosting the shadows. A woman, her dark dress flowing around her as she spun so elegantly across the ballroom floor. … The music played and she danced and I saw my grandmother Isobel.

It is a simple plan: send the grandfather to a home, sell the house, and split the cash. But as soon as Trevor Riddell and his father come to visit the house, supernatural occurrences seem to pile up. Is it really the supernatural, or is someone (or something) trying to stop the house being sold—or worse, trying to influence the house’s inhabitants?

A Sudden Light follows a myriad of plot lines that are sometimes hard to keep track of. There is Trevor Riddell, trying to get his father and mother back together, his father and Serena, Trevor’s aunt, trying to deal with their ailing alcoholic father, among at least several other plot lines. The driving force, however, is the story of Ben Riddell and his love, the fellow nature-loving companion, Harry. The book as a whole is a tale of forgiveness through generations, and what mechanisms of the present might do to hold back on forgiveness of the past.

The plot was strong, sometimes confusing due to the various plot lines, but for the most part, enjoyable. It is not a “blood and guts” kind of scary. It is the characters and their actions, how they remain repressed by their own respective hauntings that is the truly scary aspect of the book. The characters, however despicable, are still treated as human; there are minutes when characters confront past griefs occurring through their lives which are drawn with a compassionate pen. Most of all, one of the selling aspects of the book, the paranormal aspect of the book was tasteful and transitions mostly smoothly as Trevor begins to interact with the various spirits (or supposed spirits) within the house. I enjoyed the chapters when Trevor explores the house. The house itself is a piece of work, paragraphs upon paragraphs to get lost in.

There were several nitpicking things that very much weakened the book, though. “Riddell House” (Harry Potter flashbacks, anyone?) is Dickensian in its attempt to aptonym the house and its family in it; it might have worked in the 19th century, but seemed forced and humorous. The diary portions were large; chunks of the first few chapters were pure exposition. As good as a message it was, the wish of one of the characters to return the land to its natural state seemed to be particularly preachy towards the end. I disliked the various mentions of Trevor’s, er, physical attraction to his preachy aunt Serena, which could have been left out of the book without detracting from Serena’s manipulative powers. My major qualm with the book, however, is the ending, which seems to be ripped off directly from one of Charlotte Brontë’s novels.

Despite flaws, the book is okay and worth a glance. For an old-fashioned, “classic” ghost story (superficially), Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a nice ride, though with a different flavour and direction altogether.