Title: A Sudden Light
Author: Garth Stein
Genre: Historical Fiction, Paranormal, Mystery
Number of Pages (Hardcover): 416 pages
Date Published: September 30th of 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Synopsis (via GoodReads page here):
When a boy tries to save his parents’ marriage, he uncovers a legacy of family secrets in a coming-of-age ghost story by the author of the internationally bestselling phenomenon, The Art of Racing in the Rain.
In the summer of 1990, fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell gets his first glimpse of Riddell House. Built from the spoils of a massive timber fortune, the legendary family mansion is constructed of giant, whole trees, and is set on a huge estate overlooking Puget Sound. Trevor’s bankrupt parents have begun a trial separation, and his father, Jones Riddell, has brought Trevor to Riddell House with a goal: to join forces with his sister, Serena, dispatch Grandpa Samuel—who is flickering in and out of dementia—to a graduated living facility, sell off the house and property for development into “tract housing for millionaires,” divide up the profits, and live happily ever after.
But Trevor soon discovers there’s someone else living in Riddell House: a ghost with an agenda of his own. For while the land holds tremendous value, it is also burdened by the final wishes of the family patriarch, Elijah, who mandated it be allowed to return to untamed forestland as a penance for the millions of trees harvested over the decades by the Riddell Timber company. The ghost will not rest until Elijah’s wish is fulfilled, and Trevor’s willingness to face the past holds the key to his family’s future.
A Sudden Light is a rich, atmospheric work that is at once a multigenerational family saga, a historical novel, a ghost story, and the story of a contemporary family’s struggle to connect with each other. A tribute to the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, it reflects Garth Stein’s outsized capacity for empathy and keen understanding of human motivation, and his rare ability to see the unseen: the universal threads that connect us all.
Rate: 5 of 5
This is the first book by Garth Stein that I have read and I would certainly be going back for his other works. When I picked up a copy of this book and upon reading the synopsis, I wasn’t really that sold into the plot. This may be attributed to the fact that I have just finished reading something of a paranormal tone. So in that sense, I wasn’t really too eager to jump into all this again. But alas, I liked it! And I don’t really give a rating of 5 of 5 to any book. But this work is just so diverse in nature, ranging from historical fiction to family to divorce to a child’s voice to intergenerational communications to environmentalism to sexuality, etc. It’s just so profound and multi-dimensional. So many things were discussed that I didn’t know I would love. One good example is that of the paranormal/ghost character in the book. As I have said, I wasn’t so eager (and maybe even close to skeptical and thus rolling my eyes and saying, “Seriously, a ghost character again?”) about the paranormal dimension of the book at first. But what seems to be something I was tired of reading leapt into a new form and was made to be so real. And for that, I commend the writer because it’s not easy to get immersed and find yourself to actually rechecking your state of mind on the reality of ghosts.
I guess, I was just really sold into this novel since it has ranged its ideas into a very, large scale yet somehow still coming off as a cohesive work and just going to a central ending. The closing of the book got me teary-eyed (okay, I was crying shut up) but I must say, I was somehow guessing it to happen.
The characters were unusually well-thought of. It amazes me as to how so much character were outlined in each one. Each person had their own sense of mystery enshrouded around them. Whilst reading the book, there’s this weird sense of dread that I was waiting to happen…And I loved that sensation because that’s the main goal, the epitome of the Mystery genre. But then again, in my opinion, this book can fit in several shelves and not just one.
Do I recommend it? Oh boy, certainly yes.
Since I have so many things I can’t seem to say about this book, I’ve opted to pick three sets of questions from the suggested Discussion Questions at the back of the novel. Maybe that way, I can channel some qualms and some ideas I had whilst reading it. (I must tell you now, there might be some spoilers ahead.)
*What sort of woman is Serena? Why do you think she never left Riddell House? In what ways does she control the family narrative? What are some of her redemptive qualities?
How do I place the character of Serena? Perhaps, somewhere between outright crazy and just a passionate family woman. The simple reason why she never left Riddell House was because she had to take care of her old man because no one else will–with the Alzheimer’s kicking in and a house slowly falling around them. But what I really think the reason for her never having left Riddell House was that she was waiting for her long gone love–her brother, Jones. And I know it’s so twisted and incestous, but that’s what she is.
Serena had the control over the family narrative mainly because, I think, after all those years staying behind their ancestral house, she has uncovered little secrets, little trinkets here and there that made her so familiar to Riddell House compared to her living relatives. She knows most nooks and crannies, and not just in the house, even in the emotional and historical value of their family. Obviously, she controlled the thinking of Grandpa Samuel through giving her caffeine tablets, which is so twisted. But then again, that’s her narrative in the story.
Despite the fact that she is all these crazy things, I think the best quality that she had is that she loved the Riddell family. Sometimes, even dangerously so. She loved her father so much that she never left. She loved her brother so much that she waited. She loved her aging father so much she pretended to be her mother dancing in the night. And that’s love, that’s passion. And as crazy as she is, you can’t say that she wasn’t concerned for the family that she had.
*Why was Benjamin so conflicted during his lifetime? Is his internal conflict a result of his upbringing or education or sexuality? How much of it is a product of the place and time in which he lived?
Benjamin was the epitome of an enlightened soul, I think. He was so conflicted because he knew the truth and he was well aware that their family wasn’t doing the right thing. Just that simple notion is burden enough. Factor in the parental pressure of continuing a business empire, an arranged marriage, a boyfriend that’s under wraps because his father might know and not to mention society’s judgement, etc….Imagine being subject to all that. It would be hard, it’s like standing in between the extremes of a spectrum. I guess the only thing that got influenced by the time was just Ben’s sexuality. That’s it, everything else could easily apply today.
*The “eternal groaning” is one of the characteristics of Riddell House. How are Riddell House and The North Estate used as characters in the novel?
The Riddell House was like a character in some ways because it was like a silent observer through time. Trevor (the main character) found echoes of old relatives and past times from little bits in the house, yet he also found trinkets of modern-day things. As pertaining to the “eternal groaning”, I bet it was just a representation and a mere characterization to perhaps accentuate the fact that Riddell House–and the North Estate–is an old entity. It has seen so much, many things have happened in and around it and this “eternal groaning” is just a confirmation as to how much it knows, through the ages, through the generations.
Cover image and Synopsis via GoodReads