By Kim Robson:
In Garth Stein’s new novel, A Sudden Light, the author treats the reader to a complex plot spanning six generations, and weaves together the secrets and legacies of a once-great Pacific Northwest timber dynasty with the great-great-grandson who uncovers the dark history of The North Estate, the family seat.
When precocious 14-year-old Trevor Riddel meets his paternal grandfather and aunt for the first time, his world is falling apart. His father, Jones, has suffered a bankruptcy, a foreclosure, and a trial separation from his wife. Trevor believes that he can find a way to bring his parents back together again.
That’s why his father drags him along to the decrepit, ancient manor house his ancestors built. Jones plans to gain power of attorney from his ailing and aging father Samuel, pack him off to assisted living, level the rotting house, sell the 200-acre estate to developers to carve up into parcels, split the profits with sister Serena, and live happily ever after. If Jones can become financially solvent again and buy back the family home, Trevor reasons, his parents will fall in love again.
That’s the plan, at least, until Trevor sees the magnificent manor house his great-great-grandfather and timber baron, Elijah Riddel, built. Pillars of whole tree trunks support the monstrous log home, making it appear to grow right out of the surrounding woods. Soon it begins to reveal its many dark secrets to Trevor.
If you love the thought of discovering a hidden spiral staircase behind a false door leading to a secret library, long-forgotten steamer trunks filled with journals, a decaying cottage tucked into sylvan old-growth forest, a painting safe, escape hatches, missing personal effects, rare old books, spooky wooden carvings, and letters brought back from lucid dreams with the house’s multiple ghosts, then this book is for you. It combines complicated family dynamics with conservation, environmentalism, haunted houses, gaslighting, spiritualism and unsolved mysteries.
Trevor discovers that his great-granduncle, Benjamin, had exacted a promise from his father Elijah to return The North Estate to nature after he was finished with it, as atonement for the countless forests he had destroyed: “No man is beyond redemption as long as he acts in redeemable ways.”
Ben, who had secrets of his own, was a true lover of nature, and felt enormously torn between his reverence for untouched forests and his loyalty to his powerful scion of a father. Ben’s ghost visits Trevor and guides him to find the truth behind the collapse of his powerful family and its fortune. “Everything has everything to do with everything.”
In addition, Trevor’s grandpa Samuel, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, refuses to leave the house or sign power of attorney papers. The reason? He insists that his dead wife Isabel (Jones’ mother) dances for him at night in the ballroom when he can’t sleep. Samuel also channels Ben’s ghost in messages he writes on Post-It notes, but nobody pays any attention.
Certainly not Aunt Serena, who’s been caring for her ailing father over the years. She’s keen to finally leave the house she’s been trapped in; and, financed with her rightful inheritance, is anxious to see the world. She’s counting on her brother Jones to save her by convincing Samuel to sign the POA papers. When that fails, Serena turns to Trevor, who’s been bonding with his grandpa and has developed a raging crush on his beguiling young aunt.
“Be firm, Trevor,” she said. “But be gentle also. People will respond to you if they understand the strength of your resolve but they believe you will be gentle with them.”
In fact, Serena really is the only one who wants to sell the land. As much as Jones pretends to play along, he really, truly wants to believe that the ghost of his dead mother dances in the ballroom at night. You see, Jones has unfinished business to face, and this is the ultimate reason why his marriage is falling apart. If he can talk to his mother just one more time, perhaps … “My peace I give unto you.”
Trevor must ultimately reconcile his ancestors’ promises to the earth with his desire to come through for his family. Grandpa Samuel needs Alzheimer’s care, right? Serena needs a life of her own, right? Jones needs to win back his home and his wife, right? But Trevor struggles with growing doubts about Serena’s motives plus the knowledge that it would mean the destruction of an unparalleled tract of irreplaceable virgin old-growth forest overlooking the Puget Sound. Not to mention condemning the ghost of his ancestor, Ben, to forever roam the land, trapped and separated from his soulmate.
“They call them McMansions. People with money – not the super-rich, with their multiple homes and their private jets; just the regular rich people, who had a big house and maybe a time-share at a ski resort in Montana – wanted their space, and their extra bedrooms, and their walk-in closets, their four-car garages, and their hot tubs and saunas and wine cellars and lap pools and sprinkler systems and invisible dog fences, and they wanted their hardwood floors and their stainless-steel appliances and TVs in every room and alarm systems to keep others out. They wanted gates that opened with garage door clickers, and their house numbers on brass plaques. They wanted well-lit, even pathways so children and elders wouldn’t trip and skin a knee or break a hip. And they didn’t realize they were raising a generation of children who could only walk on level ground. The pathfinders of the world, henceforth, would be confined to the pre-paved paths.” (italics mine)