Catherine Hunter’s novel, After Light, is a brave, big-hearted book. It’s also the best book I’ve read so far this year.
Hunter made her name first as a poet but has also published several slender, clever and genre-bending mystery novels. (See the July 16, 2014 post below.) After Light, at 442 pages, is a more ambitious book and probably her most personal yet. The character Frank Garrison is based on her father, who fought in the Canadian Army during World War II and was blinded as a result of wounds sustained in Holland after the D-Day invasion.
The story takes up a lot of territory in both time and space. The action runs from 1916 to the present and ranges through Ireland, New York City, Toronto, Winnipeg and Holland. Time slips back and forward but Hunter handles these flashbacks deftly so that the reader is never lost.
After Light is the story of the Garrison family and of how betrayals, small and large, reverberate down the generations. Life is hard for the Garrisons. A girl is forced into marriage with an older man; a boy’s artistic ambitions are stifled by poverty and war; a father’s PTSD blights the life of his family; a child experiences a life-changing disfigurement. The tragedy of these characters is that, in their attempts to overcome these circumstances, they take actions that seem to solve an immediate problem but have dire consequences down the road.
There are whiffs of Yeats and doom-laden Irish mythology here. It can be no accident that Hunter named the matriarch of the Garrison family Deirdre, who, in the legend, avoids marriage to the aging King Conchubor by fleeing with her lover Naoise. Escape, for both Deirdres, sets off a chain of sorrows.
But this is not a dreary book. The story telling is compelling. The writing is well crafted but not showy. Alongside the frailties of her characters Hunter places the healing and transformative power of art. It is this transcendent vision that you’re left with at the end of the book.