Book Review: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

by Rebekah Benoit

A Sudden Light has all the elements of a good read on a cold winter’s evening: a dusty, creepy haunted mansion in the woods full of secret passageways and long-hidden diaries, a family of American timber aristocrats with a history full of dark secrets and mysterious deaths, plots between family members that threaten to bubble to the surface with terrible consequences. It’s mysterious enough to keep you turning pages but fraught with enough emotion and drama to ensure you enjoy the journey. While I can’t compare it with author Garth Stein’s earlier novel, The Art of Racing In the Rain, this one is still an enjoyable and thrilling read.
book reviewTrevor Riddell is an unusual 14-year old. A gifted student who might well be an authentic genius, young Trevor has seen his life turned upside down, with the failure of his father’s boat-building business and the subsequent collapse of his parent’s marriage. Now, as his mother returns to England and her family, Trevor accompanies his father to the dark, damp forests surrounding Seattle, to the decaying mansion of his grandfather and the place where his family’s dark history began.
Trevor’s father Jones never returned to the Riddell mansion, called the North Estate, after his mother’s agonizing death from ALS and his father’s subsequent banishment when he was only in his teens. So his son Trevor knows virtually nothing about his father’s childhood, or his paternal relatives, an elderly grandfather suffering from dementia or a beautiful, if inscrutable aunt Serena who cares for her ailing father. When he arrives at the arresting rural estate, all Trevor knows is that he’s there to help his father and his aunt secure control of the estate, so it can be sold to developers and potentially save his parents’ marriage.
But all is not as it seems at the North Estate. Trevor’s grandfather, though confused and often childish, refuses to relinquish control of the estate to his children. As Jones and Serena attempt to wrest ownership of the sprawling 200-plus acre estate from Samuel, Trevor discovers that the massive crumbling mansion doesn’t just look creepy. Family stories about ghosts in hidden passageways, which seem ridiculous at first glance, become more plausible as Trevor discovers hidden passageways, hears eerie bumps and groans in the night, and spots ephemeral spectres in dark corners of the enormous house.
And as he explores, Trevor begins to stumble across the hidden history of the house and the Riddell family itself. Generations ago, young Ben Riddell, heir to the family’s timber fortune, fell in love with another young man, creating a family scandal that threatened the Riddell family’s sterling reputation in the area. At the same time, Ben Riddell began another love affair, one potentially much more ruinous – he fell in love with the ancient forests his father was methodically destroying to feed the lumber-hungry cities of a growing US in the early part of the twentieth century, and extracted a promise from his father to return the North Estate back to the forests it was carved from, or face eternal damnation. Before he could force his father to make good on the promise, Ben and his lover met mysterious deaths in the forest surrounding the estate.
Now the ghost of Benjamin Riddell seems to haunt the halls of the North Estate, along with that of Jones’ mother Isobel. What do they want? If their goal is, indeed, to prevent the North Estate from falling back into the hands of money-hungry businessmen, how can young Trevor rescue the land from the hands of those he loves?
Don’t get me wrong, I did like this novel – it’s got elements of mystery and family drama, as well as a touch of history as it touches on the beginnings of the national parks system in the US and the birth of the conservation movement in North America – but it doesn’t compare to Stein’s earlier novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, which remains one of my all-time favourite books. I imagine that this is the curse of all authors who write a truly amazing novel – it’s difficult to repeat perfection. To use a baseball metaphor, even though A Sudden Light is a very respectable base hit, it simply cannot compare to the out-of-the-park home run that was Racing.
Still, it’s not at all a bad read. I would caution you, if you have yet to read any Garth Stein, to read this one first. It will serve as a perfectly satisfying appetizer to Stein’s tour de force main course.
3 teacups