‘A Sudden Light’: the burden of a timber baron’s legacy
Garth Stein’s new novel, “A Sudden Light,” is a Seattle-set ghost story, about the descendants of a timber baron struggling to come to terms with the family’s history of exploiting the land. Stein will appear Tuesday, Sept. 30, at a book-launch party at Seattle’s Richa
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “A Sudden Light” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 30, at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. Free — for more information call 206-322-7030 or go to hugohouse.org.
‘A Sudden Light’
by Garth Stein
Simon & Schuster, 416 pp., $26.95
The perfect place for a ghost story, as imagined by novelist Garth Stein, is Seattle.
Stein, author of the best-selling novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and two other novels, grew up here and now makes the city his home. Like “Rain,” “A Sudden Light” takes place here — in this case the Seattle of 1990, “before technology changed the world.”
Narrator Trevor Riddell, 14, has grown up on the East Coast. Trevor has accompanied his father, Jones, on a trip to visit his paternal grandfather and his aunt Serena, who are still living in the family home, a mansion in an exclusive neighborhood reminiscent of Seattle’s Highlands, an enclave for the superrich in the northeastern corner of the city.
Built by Trevor’s great-great grandfather, timber baron Elijah Riddell, the once grand house has fallen into disrepair — and this becomes a powerful metaphor for the dysfunction of this once prominent Northwest family. Jones and his wife, Trevor’s mother, have separated and the family is broke. Jones is in cahoots with Serena to move their father, who has shown signs of dementia, into a retirement home. They plan to sell the valuable property to developers who will subdivide the land and build “McMansions.”
With its empty rooms, servants quarters, secret stairs and hidden panels in the walls, the cavernous “Riddell House” is an ideal place for an old-fashioned haunting. As Trevor soon discovers, ghosts of past inhabitants are frequently heard or seen, including the shade of his grandmother and one of Elijah’s sons, Ben, a passionate environmentalist of the early 20th century who swore to atone for his family’s wholesale destruction of Northwest forests.
Trevor is a precocious teen, savvy and mature beyond his years. He is also the novel’s moral center, uncommonly attuned to seeking family connection and doing the right thing. He wants to get his parents back together and he becomes determined to fulfill the wishes of Ben, to return the property to nature. Never a particularly creepy or menacing apparition, Ben’s ghost appears to Trevor to make these intentions clear.
Dialogue is not Stein’s strength as a novelist — conversations sometimes sound stilted and utilitarian, in dutiful service to the plot instead of naturally uttered. But the writing can be rich and textured. “A balloon of silence expanded in the room,” Stein writes. “It started small, and with every breath it got bigger and bigger until the silence practically squeezed my father and me against the walls with its explosive potential.”
The author is in his element with his nature writing. Invoking the works of naturalist John Muir and others, Stein imbues the giant firs on the property with a transcendent life force. As hummingbirds may consider human beings as “stone sculptures” because of how slowly we move, he surmises, “hummingbirds are to humans as humans are to trees.”
A first-person narrator, especially one as young as 14, is limited in his knowledge and experience, and Stein is resourceful, cleverly piecing together the family history with dreams, overheard conversations, and reminiscences of Serena’s and of Trevor’s grandfather. All of the Riddell family secrets are revealed, including Ben’s touching romance with his gay lover, Harry.
If the ending seems tidy (I won’t reveal it here) it is also is not predictable and an immensely satisfying finale to a tale well told.
David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”