October 4th, 2014

Review: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light
by Garth Stein

Trevor Riddell and his father Jones retreat to Riddell House, the family’s sprawling, crumbling mansion overlooking Puget Sound, after his parents agree to a trial separation. Jones and his sister, Serena, have one shared goal: to sell the house out from under the family patriarch, Grandpa Samuel, split the profits and live out their dreams. Although Trevor hopes that the sale of the house will lead to his parent’s reconciliation, the teenage boy soon falls in love with the mysterious home and its secrets. Exploring hidden rooms and chasing the rumors of a ghost, Trevor uncovers artifacts from his family’s past, revealing a twisted legacy that only he has the knowledge to correct.

As I was reading the book, I initially thought, “Trevor does not sound like a teenager. He sounds much too old and mature!” But as I considered this, I realized that it makes perfect sense. While Trevor is the narrator, he is telling this story as an adult in his late thirties, recollecting events from the summer of 1990. He sounds like an adult because he is one, sifting through his memories decades later.

And what memories they are. When the reader first meet Trevor’s aunt, Serena, it’s obvious that something isn’t quite right with her. But it’s easy to dismiss her strangeness as that of a woman who rarely gets out, a woman isolated in a cavernous house because she’s taking care of her aging father. But with every appearance, her presence seems increasingly foreboding. I can’t say too much about her without spoiling a few major plot surprises, but suffice to say that as her creepiness ratchets up, it’s hard to ignore the threat she represents to Trevor.

As he’s exploring the house, Trevor stumbles across the diaries belonging to an ancestor named Ben. Ben Riddell died mysteriously, inspiring his father (the original Riddell who made a fortune in lumber) to stipulate in his will that the land around his mansion must be preserved in its natural state by future generations. This wish is respected by Trevor’s grandfather Samuel, and has become the major source of contention between himself and his children. As Trevor reads Ben’s journal, he learns about the young man’s doomed relationship with one of his father’s workers. As a teenager in 1990, Trevor is the first to admit that he would normally mock a gay man, but in the strange atmosphere of the house, so outside of his normal life, he finds himself able to accept Ben’s homosexuality and even identify with his ancestor. It adds to Trevor’s growing conflict about the house – should he team up with Serena and ensure that it sells so he can reunite his family, or should he side with his grandfather and continue to protect Ben’s beloved forest?

Fans of Garth Stein’s previous novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, might be very disappointed that the thin thread of hope that was woven into even that novel’s darkest moments isn’t really visible in his new book. It’s a dark, creepy novel that forever slides downhill towards tragedy. There are few moments of lightness or humor. But it’s also a rich, multilayered story perfect for reading as fall makes way for winter.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about A Sudden Light, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Venus in Winter by Gillian Bagwell
2012: Codename Sailor V Vol. 2 by Naoko Takeuchi
2011: Taking a break- thank my teachers for it!
2010: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
2009: Winter’s Child by Cameron Dokey
2008: Event: Book Group Expo