Helen is Light; a spirit forced to haunt hosts, with no memory of her former life, or how to end her punishment to never participate, or touch, speak, or experience anything, but to watch. Her solace is books, hosts whose love of literature matches her own. While haunting her current host, a high school English teacher, she discovers a boy who can see her. Drawn to him, amazed that they can speak, she finds he is like her, of the Quick; only he found a way to inhabit an empty body. In their struggle to be together as well as recall the secrets of their former lives, Helen seeks out a host, and the consequences are more than they anticipated.
A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb made my heart ache long after I finished the last page. I adored it to my core, even as I found myself queasy and frustrated with some of the choices the characters made. The language was beautiful, carefully chosen, filled with perfectly woven metaphors and analogies that were fresh and vivid. The writing wasn’t overly complicated, but it didn’t need to be; it told me the story in bursts of imagery and emotion that my mind immediately latched onto.
Helen is a wonderful narrator. The first third of the book, her loneliness as she hovered in the background of the lives of those she haunted was so sad and compelling. I appreciated the way she categorized her hosts, just as I appreciated her deep love of literature and how it shaped the path she took herself on through each host she cleaved to. At the introduction of Helen’s Saint, I immediately thought of Emily Dickinson, before I made the connection that the title of the book is the title of a Dickinson poem. Even if it turns out she’s not meant to be Emily Dickinson, I don’t even care; my head canon tells me otherwise. Helen’s thirst for books and her longing for real relationships, as well as her inability to understand why she was forced to drift unnoticed or how she got there, made her easy to empathize with. I badly wanted her to find answers, and achieve peace. I liked how she tried to inspire and comfort her hosts, trying to work off an unknown debt, hoping one day she’ll be allowed into Heaven. I was able to piece together her age through choice words she used, quaint antiquated phrases like ‘marriage bed,’ ‘this chimney sweep of a boy,’ and her lamenting over silent movies and courting rituals.
James’ and Helens’ relationship unfurled sweetly while she was still a ghost, and I enjoyed the ghost within the boy reaching out to Helen, trying to think of a way for her to join him. They’re so clearly not of this time, and it’s highlighted beautifully in the way they speak to one another. James tells her, ‘I would be a friend to you,’ ‘I long to speak with you again,’ and ‘I would court you with a passion, if things were different. You’d never get me off your porch swing.’ Helen is so distraught for James when she finds out he didn’t haunt hosts, like she did, but rather a place; at least Helen had her books, her poets and playwrights.
The first hiccup in the story for me was their method of going about finding an ‘empty vessel’ for Helen. I didn’t think such a thing would be so easy; how many soulless people wander about? Are they truly soulless? What animates them? I wish there had been more of an explanation for why souls fled their bodies other than deep emotional or physical trauma, especially in regards to where those souls would go and how the body keeps functioning. Autopilot? James taking Helen to the mall and finding the girl seemed far too easy. Because clearly, all one has to do to find a soulless vacuum of a person is to stop by your local mall.
…Well. I suppose you could build an argument for that.
I also found it uncomfortable when Helen and James were together as Billy and Jenny. It felt like a violation of sorts, since Billy and Jenny clearly could not consent to having their bodies used that way. I can understand how the two Light, so far removed from the experience of living, were overcome with the desire to consummate the first true connection either had made in over half a century, but it still felt a little wrong. All I could think of was the potential consequences when Helen and James were done with those bodies and the teenagers returned. I waited for Helen to feel weird about it, and she finally did feel sorry once faced with tangible items from Jenny’s past; that this girl was not always an empty vessel. Although Helen’s wonder at little things, like holding a cup, eating a pear, walking and dressing herself, was very cute.
The girl Helen inhabits has a drastically different home life than James’, as Billy, living situation. Curiously, I was not as bothered by Billy’s home situation despite how terribly wrong it went as I was by Jenny’s. Mitch, while rough and abrasive, clearly does his best to support himself and Billy, and loves his brother. That same love is present in Jenny’s household, but everything is…stifled. Oppressive. It struck an even deeper chord in me, and I read with dread how Helen’s new life was micromanaged, examined under a microscope, judged constantly and found wanting for even speaking out of turn, and religiously oppressed by ridiculously strict parents. I read and waited for an axe to fall, for Helen to slip up, just as surely as Helen waited for that moment, when her good fortune at finally being with James would get soiled somehow. And it surely did.
I loved the fact that Helen did not forget her connection with Mr. Brown, her novelist, when she became Quick. I hurt for her when she lost him, and then when she tried again and again to connect with him as Jenny, because she missed the father like figure she had and craved any kind of comfort while living in the sterile environment of Jenny’s home. Of course, I didn’t anticipate at all how that would end up looking, and I was horrified and upset for both of them. I couldn’t believe the story went there; it was a bold choice. I’m slightly bitter knowing Mr. Brown’s reputation might not ever be the same, no matter what Helen tried to do to take that off of him.
The entire last third of the book, my heart was thundering. I couldn’t see how Helen and James could fix the awful situations they found themselves in. It was nice to see Helen’s veneer crack with Jenny’s parents, to see her finally confront the hypocrisy, yet try to reach out to her pseudo mother with kindness, recognizing another broken, stifled spirit. There’s a lot to be said about the act of forgiveness in this novel and how powerful it really is. Also – I totally called Dan out the minute Helen smelled gardenias. I was so proud when she showed some backbone at that ladies party and again at the counselor’s office.
On a final note (because I could seriously go on and on about this book), I absolutely picked it up for its cover. That cover art is gorgeous, eerie, and really set the tone for the novel. I looked up the artist, and I highly recommend checking out Kamil Vojnars’ other work here. The atmosphere in that artwork gives me chills.
I give A Certain Slant of Light four out of five apples.
“On my Saint’s final day, I hoped so passionately that she would take me with her into heaven that I lay in bed beside her, listening to her breathe.” – 7
“When his mind would dry before a poem was complete, I would take great pleasure in speaking ideas into his sleeping ear. Like Coleridge with his vision of paradise restored, he would wake the next morning and turn my straw ideas into golden lines.” – 10
“Like a desert wanderer afraid of mirages, I gazed at my oasis, but he was real.” – 21
“Mitch got up, battle weary, aching with the weight of his armor.” – 101
“I began to cry, sobbing into my hands and, to my surprise, making tears, the salt of a forgotten sea.” – 118
“The whole kitchen had a peculiar cleanliness about it. Except for the pears, every morsel of food was sealed away from the world…Cathy’s kitchen seemed to treat food with suspicion. I preferred even Billy’s untidy kitchen to this strange room. At least at Billy’s house, a mouse could survive for a night or two.” – 126
“I wondered whether this was how Jenny left her body behind – one day she had to escape so she threw a blanket over her flesh and gently climbed out.” – 233