Expectations are always a key factor in experiencing a book, and A Sudden Light by Garth Stein was a bit of an anomaly for me because I went into it pretty much blind. I knew it was a ghost story with a mystery, but I didn’t know much beyond that. That small bit of knowledge misled me though, and I had to adjust my expectations quickly. Although technically the book did deliver both a ghost and a mystery, this is not a fast-paced adventure novel. It leans more towards magical realism than fantasy, and the mystery is more philosophical and introspective than exciting.
The story is really a family drama, in which fourteen-year-old Trevor learns about his complicated family history while trying to sort out his own relationship with his father. He and his father have returned to his father’s family home. The family is full of secrets, so Trevor tries to reconstruct the events of the past century using whatever information he can find. The story comes together from a combination of Trevor’s own narrative, journals, newspaper articles, and flashbacks.
The characters are well written and, with the possible exception of Trevor, believable and interesting. Trevor is hard to buy as a fourteen-year old. However, since we’re seeing this through adult-Trevor’s eyes, reflecting back on the story, I’ll give it a pass. Maybe adult-Trevor is just projecting some of his maturity into his memory of his younger self. The most interesting character is Aunt Serena; I would say her development as a character is a better mystery than the mysteries in Trevor’s family history. For me, she was the strongest part of the book, and thread that pulled me through all the way to the end of the story. However, there are some weird incestuous undertones in the family relationships, so if you’re easily freaked out by that, this might not be the book for you.
The plot was decidedly okay. It was believable, assuming you’re capable of suspension of disbelief for the supernatural elements. Everything came together in the end. I have no complaints about the events themselves. The pacing was hard for me though. This book was just slow. And that brings me to my main complaint for the book: there was a lot of content that, from my perspective, was unnecessary.
I mentioned that it was philosophical and introspective. Some of this is probably just a taste issue; I admit, long passages that ponder the meaning of the universe really just aren’t my cup of tea. I never particularly enjoyed Walden (and the book does reference Thoreau several times). Given my preferences, I was somewhat predisposed not to like this aspect of the book. However, I think even if I enjoyed these kinds of ponderings in general, I don’t think I would have cared for the ones in this book for two reasons:
The first is what I think of as “drive-by commentary,” in which the narrator takes a haphazard shot at a social issue in passing. There nothing leading up to the commentary, and no effort taken to support it. It’s just thrown out there, a blunt criticism of the world, and then we move on to the next part of the story. The first time it happened, I thought it was tongue-in-cheek. The further I got into the book though, the less I believed that to be true. It didn’t add to the story, and it felt out of place.
The second issue is the language itself. There are moments in this book where the prose is brutally flowery. I am not particularly picky about my prose. If it is a good story and it is good storytelling, I’m willing to be forgiving if the language isn’t awesome. But when the pacing of a book is slow, the prose needs to be strong enough to hold the book up. I felt like the language in this book was sometimes overly dramatic and elaborate, to the point of being distracting.
Overall, this wasn’t a great book for me, but I acknowledge that it does not cater to my particular tastes. It is not poorly written, and the plot and the characters are all strong. The family relationships are compelling, and those are the real strength of the story. If you don’t mind some navel-gazing and you enjoy family dramas, A Sudden Light might be a good read for you even if it wasn’t great for me.