On the red vinyl chairs of the university library where I wrote my review
Garth Stein Simon & Schuster AU Published October 2014 Thank you to the publisher for providing this book for an honest review. This did not influence my review in any way.
A Sudden Light is a story about love, loss, regret and a ghost that spans over generations of the Riddell family. The Riddell House, where fourteen-year-old Trevor’s grandfather and aunt live – who he has never met before the summer of 1990 – has been in the family since the early 1900s when it was built by Trevor’s great-great-grandfather and is full of mystery, deception and family secrets. Feeling the weight of his parents’ ‘trial separation’ after they become bankrupt, Trevor sets out to put the story together and uncover the hidden truths of his family. As he does, he realises that they are not alone in Riddell House.
A Sudden Light is told in the reflective voice of Trevor, now in his thirties, as he tells the story of that summer to his children. I loved how the naivety and innocence of young Trevor, with his plan to get his parents back together and repair his family, is melded with the wiser tones of the older Trevor and how he remembers what happened that summer. I really enjoyed this style of writing and could easily identify when the older Trevor was kind of narrating and the younger one was living it, so to speak. The older Trevor describes things and emotions and thoughts that the younger Trevor, though a gifted writer, may not have understood or had the capacity to explain at the time. He did keep a journal which would have helped the recall of the older Trevor along, I’m sure.
We have a very interesting cast of characters in the Riddell House – both living and dead. Trevor, the only child, and his dad have returned to the family house where Aunt Serena and Grandpa Samuel have lived since Trevor’s dad, Jones, was a child. Aunt Serena is a powerful character who has something to wield over the other members of the family and an ideal she won’t let go of. Grandpa Samuel is slowly losing his mind to Alzheimer’s – or is he? He claims he can hear his late wife Isobel dancing in the night and he writes out Post-It notes that nobody understands. Jones and Serena join forces to convince their father its time to sell the house to developers and Trevor is enlisted to help. But as Trevor learns more about the house and its previous inhabitants, he starts to wonder if that is really a good idea. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place: once they have money from the sale, he believes his parents will get back together. As he delves further and further into the mystery of the house and meets its ghostly inhabitant, who won’t leave until the house and the estate is turned back to nature, Trevor doesn’t know what to do. Add to that the double motives of Aunt Serena and the possibility that Grandpa Samuel might not actually be crazy – the Riddell House is so much more than it seems and its no wonder that Trevor is torn.
There was a lot involved in this novel: the history of the Riddell House and its inhabitants, the reason Jones left the family house and never went back, the current trial separation, the plot to sell the house to developers and put Grandpa Samuel in a nursing home as well as environmental consciousness and related issues to logging and life in the 1900s. But I liked it. It was full of life and complexity because life is full of complexity. I never felt like there was too much going on in this book, I just went along for the ride and enjoyed all of it. I loved Trevor’s snarky fourteen-year-old attitude and his cleverness, and the fact that he knew he was clever and yet wasn’t a pain. I enjoyed his inquisitiveness and watching him develop a conscious about things he hadn’t yet considered in his young life. I loved Grandpa Samuel, and I detested Serena, and I felt sorry for Jones – it was just a winning combination. Everything just flowed so perfectly and as the story raced towards its conclusion, my heart was in my mouth and by the time the epilogue rolled around I had tears streaking down my face.
I really enjoy multi-generational stories that feel epic due to the span of time they cross and the intricacies of the characters and I love family secrets! And the other thing is I just can’t find anything wrong with this book. And I try to, you guys know that. BUT ITS BRILLIANT. Solid five stars and I’m off to find The Art of Racing in the Rain.