Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time! I include roundups from participating bloggers in my post every week.Retro Friday review! Things just kept popping up on Fridays, but now we are back to regularly scheduled programming. And the book I've chosen for you today is an absolute keeper, but one that I rarely see featured for review for some reason. It hasn't been out that long really, but it's one I feel deserves more attention. I found it back in January of 2006 while browsing the Staff Picks shelf at my local bookstore. I'm always intrigued by the staff picks at bookstores and libraries. I love seeing what other bibliophiles pick when asked to recommend one title per month or so for the masses. In this case, the cover caught me in its net immediately. I fell in love on the spot and walked out with the book in hand. The hair falling over the lip of the chipped old-fashioned tub. The ghosty hands held up before her like they belong to someone else. The faded, slightly sinister wallpaper. And then, of course, the title. If you're an Emily Dickinson fan or a reader of ghost stories, A Certain Slant of Light is a guaranteed home run.
The story opens with the following shivery line:
Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you're dead.Helen is dead. She has been for 130 years. And that's why she finds it so unsettling when, in the middle of her current host--Mr. Brown's--English class, she notices a boy looking at her. Looking at her as if he actually sees her. And it turns out he does. James is dead as well and occupies a young man named Billy Blake's body, whose soul fled it when his life became too unbearable to stay. But James, like Helen, is lonely. And, as he extends a hand of friendship, Helen tentatively accepts his unprecedented offer. Together they search for ways to stay near one another, to remember their past selves, and to possibly find Helen a body to inhabit. When they stumble across Jenny, it seems they've found their chance. Jenny lives a no-frills life with her rigidly religious, authoritarian parents and all spark seems to have been beaten out of her when James and Helen find her. It seems like the perfect opportunity, and for awhile the two lost souls are achingly happy--able to touch, converse, and interact together as though they were alive once more. But animating the bodies of two such different young people is fraught with danger as they try not to alert their hosts' family members to their altered states. Billy's older brother Mitch is less of a problem, though he does notice a difference, but Jenny's parents are a force to be reckoned with. And, when they make a decision that will remove their daughter even further from the outside world, Helen and James are left scrambling to find a way to remain together.
This book. This book is impossibly beautiful. With its soaring themes of loss and redemption, of body and spirit, and how one can be slowly dying without ever being sick a day. The way Laura Whitcomb infuses her story with overtones from so many great works of literature is refreshingly deft without being heavy-handed. And I love the way she (through Helen) refers to the spirits who linger as the Light and those who are still living as the Quick. In this case, the beauty of the story lies in an almost perfect melding of the right words, the right characters, and the right tone. Each of them so unique I found myself consumed by the story, by how different and addicting it was. A favorite passage (of so very many):
When the bell rang, he slowly closed his book. The other students had already slung their bags onto their backs and were migrating toward the door. The young man gathered his belongings and turned halfway back toward me. With a flick of his head, he beckoned. I followed him closely up the aisle, out the door, down the pathway. He kept his eyes straight ahead of him. When he came to the recycling bins where we had stopped before, there were a boy and a girl there, holding hands and talking. He paused for only half a moment and then kept walking. He came around the side of the library and stopped suddenly, stepping into the phone booth beside the caged vending machine. The booth was the older style that stood like an upright glass coffin. He dropped his bag at his feet and looked me in the eyes as he picked up the receiver.This scene early on in the novel is one of my favorites. I love Helen and James. Every scene they share is packed with tension. But I love Jenny and Billy as well, for all they're not actually there much of the time. But a certain scene they share near the very end is, in my opinion, the best one in the book. Sometimes I flip through and read just that one, it's so arresting. A Certain Slant of Light was marketed YA, but I really think of it as an excellent crossover novel, particularly as the bodies of the main characters are teens, but the spirits inhabiting them are adults who both died in their late twenties. It is a shockingly good debut novel and one I return to again and again whenever I'm feeling lonely or beaten down by life. Whenever I find myself dwelling on how hard it is to forgive yourself some things and how important it is not to ignore those around us because we are so consumed with our own set of troubles. Combine all these weighty issues with an exquisitely sweet love story, a mystery, and one of the most beautiful endings I've had the pleasure of reading, and I have a hard time not gushing about it to random strangers on the street.
"What's your name?" he said. I was breathless. "What should I call you?" he asked.
It wasn't that I had forgotten; it was just that no one had asked me in a long time.
"Helen," I said.
He glanced around to see whether anyone was eavesdropping. Then he pushed himself back into the corner of the cramped space and gestured with one hand, inviting me into the glass booth. I was shocked, but I moved toward him, and he closed the sliding door behind me. It wasn't until then that I realized he could talk now without others hearing.
"Helen," he said.
"Mr. Blake," I said.
He smiled, a brilliant moment. "Not really," he said. "My name is James."
There was such an odd silence, he staring into my eyes, and me, well, I was so lost; I could scarcely speak. "How is it you see me?" But I wanted to cry, Thank God you do.
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