A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Trevor Riddell’s world is falling apart. His father has recently declared bankruptcy. They’ve lost their beloved home, morbidly watching as it was perfunctorily sold at auction. Now, his mother, Rachel, has gone home to England, and his father, Jones, is taking him to the ancestral home near Seattle in a sort of trial separation. This will not do. Trevor is determined to bring them back together again so they can all live happily ever after. He is, after all, only fourteen.


My father pulled the car to a stop on the drive, and I found myself speechless. Not out of protest; no. But because I was stunned into silence by the sight of Riddell House…Across a vast field of dry grass loomed a massive structure made of logs and bricks and stones, crowned with a roof of heavy cedar shakes accented by green copper downspouts and flashing. The house was circumscribed by a veranda on both the first and the second of the three floors. The drive swept past a grand front stairway and looped around to meet up with itself again, while a spur split off and disappeared behind the house. I quickly counted a dozen chimneys, though I was sure there were more; I estimated at least a hundred windows, though I didn’t take the time to count. The house appeared squat from our perspective, as if it were hunkering down to the earth. The pillars that encircled it and made up much of its exterior walls were tree trunks. Fully grown, giant trees. Stripped of their limbs and clad in their native bark. Each one, a perfect specimen. The tree pillars stood vertically, side by side—the tallest of them fifty feet, by my estimation, at the roof’s peak—a regiment of silent, glaring giants.

Here, in this crumbling monument to timber and money, he meets his grandfather, Samuel Riddell, and his Aunt Serena, for the first time.  Samuel is, apparently, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and is rather childlike and confused and Serena’s blue-toed seductress with a bitter tongue that drips with the venom of malice and the sweetest honey at the same time.  The goal of this visit is to get Samuel to sign a power-of-attorney so that Serena and Jones can bulldoze the house and develop the land building smaller mansions for newly minted Microsoft millionaires, thus restoring the family fortunes.  The ghosts of Riddell House have other ideas.  Neither side is above using Trevor to carry out their schemes.

It doesn’t take long for the house and its inhabitants, alive and dead, to cast their spell on Trevor, pulling him into an intricate web of promises broken and kept, of lies and deceits blended nearly seamlessly with unassailable truths and those as ephemeral as smoke, of sickness of the mind, body, and heart.

It didn’t take me long to catch on to a good portion of Serena’s scheme and to the fact that she wasn’t quite right.  The ultimate fate of the house was also rather easy to predict from relatively early on in the book.  However, despite this, the story, especially the ghosts, kept me absorbed and entertained.  While not as wrenching as The Art of Racing in the Rain, A Sudden Light is a wonderful escape into a haunted mansion and the twisted plots of a demented woman and her dead relatives.

It also leaves me with a desire to re-read Ron Rash’s Serena.  I mean, what is it with creepy women featuring in novels about rapacious timber barons being named Serena?  Serena Riddell is seductive, calculating, manipulative to the point of cruelty, yet, oddly, warm, sympathetic, and engaging.  Rash’s Serena Pemberton was neither warm, sympathetic, nor engaging.  With all of that, Riddell’s endgame, her ultimate goal, is creepy in a gross, disgusting kind of way.  Just ICK!

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars



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