In Garth Stein’s new novel, A Sudden Light, fourteen-year-old Trevor has begun to suspect that to understand the present you may need some back-up from the past. As his family wrestles with the fate of Riddell House, the crumbling mansion built from his great-grandfather’s timber fortune, the conflicting agendas of both the dead and the living come to light.
Trevor and his father, Jones Riddell, head to Riddell House during a time of family crisis. After watching his parents lose their own house and begin a trial separation, Trevor isn’t sure whose word to trust. His father has told him the ostensible reason for their visit to Riddell House: he and Trevor’s aunt, Serena, plan to place their father into a facility for Alzheimer’s patients—a plan that will also clear the way for the sale of the Riddell estate. But once they arrive and Trevor meets his long-estranged family members, he can’t shake the feeling that there’s far more to these circumstances than anyone wants him to know.
Grandpa Samuel is suffering from lapses of memory and coherence, a state that interferes with Trevor’s ability to judge his character and perspective on their family’s future. Serena has stayed home to care for her father, and over time she has made sense of their family’s painful past by applying the New Age beliefs her late mother held dear. After years of lonely isolation in the giant family house, both Samuel and Serena have become locked in a complicated dynamic colored by resentment.
For the Riddell family, the grand estate house has become both a haven and a trap. Built amid vast acres of clear-cut woodland, Riddell House embodies the extravagant wealth and clout of late-nineteenth-century timber barons. Trevor has grown up beneath the shadow of this lineage: “My forefathers had literally changed the face of America—with axes and two-man saws and diesel donkeys to buck the fallen, with mills to pulp the corpses and scatter the ashes, they carved out a place in history for us all. And that place, I was told, was cursed.”
Paradoxically, the Riddell patriarch sought to evoke the timelessness of his stock-in-trade by lining the exterior walls of his mansion with ancient tree trunks, stripped of their limbs and crowded into a “regiment” of pillars. This uneasy history makes itself felt in the daily life of the house itself: “The old house sighed and groaned and shifted as if it were constantly moving, shrugging itself toward the bluff like an old man, mumbling and complaining with each step.”
In spite of sparring, recalcitrant family members mired in their own agendas, Trevor sets out to uncover the true story of his family’s past. Trevor investigates Riddell House’s many hidden passages, libraries, “priest holes,” and basements, where bits of evidence seem to be waiting for him. The dead seem to be helping him, too. When it comes to managing his dramatic family members, Trevor must choose how to wield the new knowledge and power he’s gaining.
The ghostly elements of this novel work best when they function in light of their historical context: popular nineteenth-century enthusiasm for Spiritualism and matter-of-fact acceptance of the supernatural. Stein, who is also the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, girds his modern characters with the cultural echoes of their forebears, making the fantastical currents of his story more palatable within its modern setting. Moreover, Trevor narrates this story from a long distance of time, giving him the chance to frame his story as one we’ll be more inclined to believe.
Now an adult, Trevor couches his tale in literary precedent, comparing himself to the burdened storyteller in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In other words, we know right away that we’re in for an adventurous, haunted yarn. As Trevor excavates the events of past generations, A Sudden Light illuminates many double binds that lie at the heart of family, nature, mortality, and the spirit.
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction is forthcoming from The Florida Review and The Double Dealer, and her reviews have appeared in Yemassee and Tennessee Libraries. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.