Monday, February 19, 2018

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Garth Stein begins his intriguing novel, A Sudden Light, with a quote from Anais Nin, “We do not see things the way  they are, we see them as we are”, and with this Kantian insight he begins to tell a long story that calls into question the reliability of memory, the responsibilities of wealth, and the destruction of the forests of this country by the lumber barons of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Most of you readers will know Stein by his famous novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and while that was a fine book, I think this one is better and more important. Trevor Holloway, who is fourteen years old, goes on a trip to Seattle with his father in order to discover about his past and about the vast estate once owned by his great, great grandfather Elijah Riddell. Trevor’s parents, Jones and Rachel, have recently separated after Jones’ business has collapsed and his mother has ‘escaped’ to England to be with her family. While he is not sure why his father has insisted that he accompany him on the trip, he is sure of what his personal mission is. 
… I understood two things:  first, somewhere along the way, my father had gone wrong and my mother stopped loving him; second, I could fix him. I could pull him together. And I believed that, by the end of the summer, if I did my job right, I could deliver my father to my mother as if he were a regular, loving person, like when she first met him…And then? Well, then it would be up to her to decide where her heart lay. A kid can only do so much.
During the course of his summer, he meets his 73 year old grandfather, Grandpa Samuel (who is said to be suffering from dementia), and his beautiful aunt, Serena, who feels that her brother Jones simply abandoned her when she was eleven, but has now come back to save her by getting their father to sell the huge old wooden mansion they still live in and the extensive grounds that are worth a fortune given the proximity to the city of Seattle. 

He also learns how Elijah was one of the major timber barons who, according to his dead son Ben, destroyed nature for profit. Ben is the conservationist son who bends all of his efforts to saving ‘The North Estate, and returning at least that small part of the forest back to nature.  

The story is a long and intricate one, and you will have to discover its many turns by reading the book yourself, but I can say you will be reminded of another forester Pinchot, and of the great conservationist John Muir. The book reminded me in a powerful way of my fascination with Muir in the 70s, and sent me back to some of his work. 

Trevor comes to know Ben through his dreams, and comes to believe that he is a somehow channeling Ben, and joining him in the struggle to preserve a bit of the land Ben’s father acquired. Trevor slowly explores many of the hidden rooms and chambers in the huge mansion and pieces together a story of the house’s past and of sins of his forefathers.

Grandpa Samuel provides the first clues about the past and the struggle he is having with his daughter, Serena, over selling the house and land. Serena has essentially surrendered her own life in the service of her aging father, and she wants finally to reap some benefit from the caretaking of the house and Samuel. We come to learn that her love for her brother, Jones, is not simply sisterly love, but has a romantic and carnal aspect as well. Indeed, her long-term plan is to get power of attorney so she and Jones can sell the land off (to be parceled into plots for McMansions), and then to tour the world with Jones as her brother/lover. Serena even tries to seduce young Trevor as an aid to completing her plans.

While the story totally caught my interest, I was even more interested in the history provided of the  rape of the land by the timber barons and the collusion between the timber men and mighty new railroads in exploiting the land for profit. While that history is certainly a sad and disturbing one, there is light in this story and some lovely excursions into nature mysticism as well. While some readers may be put off by the aura of magic in the novel, I read it more like a struggle between head and heart, between hard logic and a relationship with nature that transcends the need to codify and understand. Much like McEwan’s, Black Dogs, in which I believe McEwan presents his own struggles to rectify the division between rationality and spirit, I believe this is Stein’s attempt to take on this same struggle. There is in the incomprehensible complexity of the universe mystery that is not to be solved but simply to be embraced, and Stein does a fine job of standing before and embracing the mystery. 

I came away from the book feeling more optimistic about the world even in this dark and chaotic time. And I carried from it a quote from John Muir that has become a sort of mantra for me, “My peace I give unto you”. When you read the book, you will understand the importance of the mantra.

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