Advanced reader copy received from publisher (Simon & Schuster) via NetGalley
Release date (UK): 30th September
A Sudden Light is an eclectic mix of a coming-of-age-tale, family saga, historical drama and ghost story. It’s a lot of themes to pack into one novel, but Garth Stein just about pulls it off.
The story is set in 1990, and told from the point of view of 14 year old Trevor Riddell. He and his father, Jones, are journeying back to the house of his father’s childhood, Riddell House, an isolated mansion made entirely of wood, overlooking Puget Sound in Seattle.
His father explains that they have come here on a specific mission – to deal with the selling of the estate in order to raise some money, since he recently lost his business and was declared bankrupt. Trevor is is a willing part of the plan, as he believes that his father coming into some extra cash from the sale of the house could be just the thing to save his parents’ struggling marriage.
But as they settle in, it becomes apparent that their mission is not as clear-cut as Trevor first envisaged. There’s his old Grandpa Samuel who is adamantly against selling the property and being put in a home, but more overbearing is the strong presence of the house itself, its history and the ghosts which linger there.
There are some truly brilliant characters in this novel. Grandpa Samuel for one, who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s – Trevor’s Aunt Serena summarises the situation by saying “He can’t remember anything, so he writes things down on Post-It notes. It’s all gibberish; none of it makes sense. They say in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, your brain resembles a damp sponge. Dwell on that image for a moment or two.” Grandpa’s seemingly meaningless outbursts add a touch of humour to the story, but as Trevor gets to know his Grandfather better, he realises that something much more complex is going on, and that Grandpa’s notes and proclamations may not be as nonsensical as they first seem.
Then, there’s Serena herself. Happily playing games with her father, brother, nephew and her own boyfriend, this attractive young woman seems to enjoy having all the men in her life wrapped around her little finger. Whilst on first impressions, she seems beautiful and bright, scratch the surface a little and there’s much darker agendas lurking. I actually would have liked her character to be explored a little more, but I think the younger narrator hinders this character exploration somewhat.
As you’ll know if you’ve heard anything about this novel, it’s about ghosts. Set in an old, run-down mansion complete with secret passageways and undiscovered family secrets, it really is the perfect location for a haunting. But in this story the ghosts are not Trevor’s main source of worry. It is through the ghosts that he learns about his family history, but also where he finds comfort in unfamiliar surroundings. I kind of wanted a havoc-wreaking poltergeist to pop up now and then, but these ghosts are the gentle type. It’s the twisted, complex characters of those who were still alive which Trevor had to worry about more.
I’m a little bit on the fence with this book, as there are some parts I really loved and some I didn’t so much. For one, the ghosts didn’t thrill me and I would perhaps have preferred more time spent on the characters in the present, although I appreciate that they helped young Trevor learn about his family’s past. The novel also felt a little drawn out at times; some of the description felt forced, the story went at a slow pace and elements of the family drama felt a little cheesy and overdone. That having been said, the ending was brilliant. Stein hits the reader with a shocking climax which I really didn’t see coming and then ties it all up with a truly touching and tender moment between mother and son in the final chapter. It had me welling up, and not many books manage that.