Stories continue in all directions to include even the retelling of the stories themselves, as legend is informed by interpretation, and interpretation is informed by time. And so I tell my story to you, as the Mariner told his: he, standing outside the wedding party, snatching at a passing wrist, paralyzing his victim with his gaze; I, standing with my family at the edge of this immortal forest. I tell this story because telling this story is what I must do.
Garth Stein, A Sudden Light
Yesterday, while he was fitting me for new sneakers, the salesman asked me what my favorite book was. (How did the subject come up, you wonder? Never one to waste a moment of potential reading time, I was reading a book while waiting my turn in the shoe store.) I told him that was an impossible question to answer — I could only give him a list of my favorite books. “No,” he said. “You have to pick one. I’ll start. Mine is Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz.”
OK, I thought. Fair enough. I wanted to get my sneakers and move on with my day. So I said the first book that popped into my mind: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. When I described the book, he was fascinated — it turns out he is an auto racing fan AND a dog owner. Not that those characteristics are necessary for a person to enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain, but that lucky coincidence made it a sure bet. When the salesman told me he “still likes paper books” and that he didn’t think there were any bookstores left in the northern suburbs of Chicago, I gave him directions to Lake Forest Book Store, 10 minutes away from the shoe store. I hope he went.
Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t my favorite book (as I said, there’s no such thing) but it is a book that I hold close to my heart. I’ve read it, reread it, underlined favorite passages, and listened to it on audio. No critic would call it a literary masterpiece — it’s not multi-layered, it’s sentimental, and the writing, while lovely, is not distinctive. It’s more what I would call a little jewel of a book — not ambitious in its scope, but perfect at what it sets out to do. Enzo, the dog who narrates the book, has a voice that no reader will ever forget. I hate to use the word “uplifting”, but that’s what this book is, even with the inevitable sadness at the end.
Stein published The Art of Racing in the Rain in 2008, so it’s been a six-year wait for his fourth novel, A Sudden Light. (Stein is also the author of two previous novels, which I haven’t yet read.) A Sudden Light has some elements in common with The Art of Racing in the Rain: the Seattle setting, a compelling narrator — in this case, a precocious 14-year-old boy — and an air of mysticism.
Trevor Riddell’s bankrupt, recently separated father, Jones, brings him to his grandfather’s mansion (Riddell House) in order to move the old man to a nursing home and sell the property for much-needed cash. However, Trevor discovers that there may be a ghost in the house, and secrets in his family’s history, that will prevent his father and his Aunt Serena from carrying out their plan. Trevor badly wants the plan to succeed, because he thinks that if his father has money in the bank he and his mother will be more likely to reconcile.
A Sudden Light is told from the perspective of Trevor as an adult, telling the story of the fateful summer when he lived at Riddell House with his grandfather (who may or may not have dementia), his Aunt Serena (who may be mentally ill, evil, or perhaps both), and his father (who is a lost soul, trying to find his way back to his wife and his son, and to come to terms with his dysfunctional family). Trevor’s voice captivated me right away, and I read eagerly for the first third of the book.
Then things became problematic for me. Trevor discovers (too easily) old family diaries and letters that reveal many ugly secrets. He encounters a ghost, who helpfully fills in the missing parts of the sordid Riddell family history. Aunt Serena, Trevor’s father’s sister, who has never married and lives with her father as his caretaker, displays increasingly erratic and sinister behavior. I found it especially creepy that she always addresses Trevor’s father as “Brother Jones”. She — like some of her Riddell ancestors — was too much of a stock villain to be a believable character.
I should admit I have a problem with ghosts. I think they are usually a silly plot device. Usually, when a ghost appears in a novel, that is the moment when I lose interest. That didn’t happen right away in this book, because I held out hope that the ghost was a figment of Trevor’s imagination. I don’t want to give anything away, but the ghosts do turn out to be other than what they originally seem. Still, not long after the ghost showed up. I began finding the story contrived and unbelievable. I’m not sure why I can easily accept a dog as a narrator, but not a ghost as a character. Maybe it’s because it is a fact, accepted by every sane human being, that dogs do not narrate books, while apparently there are reasonable people who believe in ghosts.
Trevor Riddell is one of those people. He has a difficult time convincing his mother, a brilliant scholar of comparative literature, that the Riddell House ghosts exist: “‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I thought you were making up stories — going a little crazy in this house with your imagination and nothing to keep you occupied. I didn’t know how to believe you. I’m so sorry'”. Trevor’s mother has spent her life as an agnostic, accepting the inexplicable. The connection Trevor feels with the ghosts of his ancestors helps him develop a faith that sustains him:
Perhaps that’s what life is about–the search for such a connection. The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand. And in that moment, we touch the face of God.