“My peace I give unto you”
Old houses are broken down and creepy, and ghosts are scary, usually out for revenge…or so one is meant to believe. A Sudden Light by Garth Stein breaks all of these rules, however. The narrator, Trevor Riddell, is only fourteen years old and completely in the dark about his family history on his dad’s side. But the past suddenly starts melding with the present after tragedy strikes the family, bankrupting his dad’s business and putting his parents’ marriage in troubled waters. It is after his parents begin a trial separation that Trevor’s summer break becomes anything but regular. While his mother heads to England, Trevor and his father return to where his father grew up — Riddell House and its timber legacy. Their goal? To join forces with Trevor’s aunt Serena, put Grandpa Samuel in a nursing home, sell off the decaying house and its property for development, divide the profit, and make everything right in the world again. But Trevor discovers that this house has secrets and that this grand master plan for Riddell House may not be what everyone living there wants — at least those not entirely alive, anyway. A certain ghost has promises that need to be kept and Trevor may be the only one willing to listen.
Setting the scene if often considered the “boring” part of writing and reading, however, A Sudden Light imbues the setting with more importance than is the usual practice. But this was hardly a drawback for the book. Stein is extremely visual and when reading you can sense the time he took to describe every detail, literally making the words breath on the page and bringing nature to life. Nature in this book is very much its own character. The reader can easily picture the towering ancient trees standing tall and ominous around the decaying mansion that is the Riddell Legacy. This mansion is also quite alive in its own right, housing long forgotten secrets and hidden passageways. But while Stein comes across as meticulous when it comes to trees and old houses, he seems less so inclined to pay the same attention to his human characters. Trevor is very young to be telling this story, and although he is recollecting the events as an adult, there is a limited sense of growth. The reader only really sees this naive boy who can’t quite figure everything out. He doesn’t seem to really grow from his experiences. I expected him to have deeper reactions to what was going on around him. Instead his feelings came across as superficial and half-hearted. Some more depth to Trevor’s character would probably have given the story that extra boost it needed.
The same problem I had with Trevor transfers to the other characters as well. Stilted conversations was very much a problem for this book. It didn’t flow or feel natural. I honestly felt like Stein gave all his energy to the setting and left none to complicate the characters. They were all very two-dimensional. The truth behind Serena’s character, while not completely evident, could be more than partially deciphered even before the book’s mid-point. It became quite obvious to me that I had figured her out long before Trevor had. While this method works in other books, giving the reader that foreshadowing head start, it felt more like Trevor was just being oblivious to the obvious, which instead of making me root for him made me negatively judge him instead.
Finally, Stein’s ending… It was very tidy, and while there was an attempt to create some drama and apprehension, it ended up feeling anti-climatic. It was basically saying “well this happened, but it’s all okay now.” Not exactly the ending I was anticipating for what started out with a very interesting premise. Combining together the present day, the timelessness of nature, generational history, and old society’s timber tycoons…it was a writer’s recipe that could have done so much more than it accomplished here.
Despite its setbacks I did enjoy reading A Sudden Light — it was haunting and a very interesting idea. Sadly it could have been a little richer in its character development. But if you don’t mind the cookie-cutter characters, it is worth reading, if only for the view.
3 out of 5 book thumbs up
A Sudden Light by Garth Stein, Simon and Schuster Canada © 2014.