Saturday, 12 July 2014

Review: 'A Sudden Light' by Garth Stein

I decided to request this book on Netgalley after it was recommended by a fellow-blogger. And I am glad I followed up on the recommendation, even though not all the aspects of the novel wowed me as much.
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.
 The main character is a fourteen/fifteen-year old who, on the one hand, seems a lot smarter than the average boy his age, but then is also incredibly open to the world beyond. Perhaps it's a strange thought in relation to a paranormal contemporary novel, but at times I was wondering how realistic this portrayal was. I did enjoy Trevor as a character and a narrator though. He was the kind of character that would plunge head first into the dark end of a corridor and that simple makes for a much more entertaining reading experience than characters that have to be hauled into the dark end of the corridor. I similarly really enjoyed Grandpa Samuel. Here Stein gives the reader a character with some genuine struggles and I thought Samuel's development through the book was really well done. I always enjoyed the scenes he was in. The rest of the "supporting cast" at times disappointed me a bit. Although Stein continuously manages to write his characters three-dimensionally, I still felt that some of the characteristics were too exaggerated.

At times I felt the author was having a hard time deciding whether this was going to be an adult family saga or whether it was to be for a younger audience. On the one hand a lot of things seemed to be too easy, in the sense that Trevor's journey continued so fluently there was hardly any struggle to it, but then on the other hand Stein gives the reader philosophical debates that involved Henry David Thoreau. You don't involve Thoreau unless you know your readers can deal with him. I found a similar kind of imbalance in the way the adult characters worked. There were a lot of themes addressed, such as alcoholism, disease and homosexuality, and although I think Stein handled the latter with finesse, I feel that the others were at times dealt with in a way that didn't seem congruous with the rest of the novel.

An aspect of this book that I absolutely loved was Stein's description of nature. What initially drew me to the book was the idea of a mansion built from whole trees. The image of it is very visual and as a theme, trees really bring the novel to life. There seems to be a genuine passion there and I loved how Stein made the love for trees something intrinsic not only to the characters but to the novel. Mentioned in the book is John Muir's The Mountains of California, which forms a major inspiration to Trevor and I can imagine to Stein himself. After having finished the book I looked up Muir's work myself and plan on reading it soon. I think it's a very big compliment to a book to say it inspires you to read more. Good literature should always inspire a desire to read.

I give this novel...

3 Universes.

I really enjoyed A Sudden Light and I think it dealt with a lot of topics very well. What put me off a bit was the fact it seemed to switch between an almost middle-grade and an adult style. However, it made for an amazing time and in the end I even shed a tear. If you're looking for an enjoyable read for late evenings when ghosts seem a lot closer to reality, then this is the book for you!


  1. I understand how it can be frustrating when a book keeps swaying between two places when it should stick to one, but I'm glad you enjoyed it anyway.

    Bayan @ The Booklicker

  2. A gorgeous tangle of ghost story, family mystery, eco history, and coming of age novel. Climb inside young Trevor's viewpoint; experience his odd and tragic family. Take your time inside Riddell House, exploring its nuances and nooks and spirits. Emerge with a greater sense of history, of scope and thought about so many things: spirituality, our effect on the earth, and on each other. You will love it.