“Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.”
If I tried really hard, I might be able to find something wrong with this story. But why would I want to work that hard? After just finishing A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb, already I want to start over again from the beginning. So seldom do I run across a story this well put together, I can’t help but gush a little. I even emailed Laura Whitcomb to tell her how much I enjoyed it.
What the story is about
Helen has been haunting the living for a hundred thirty years now. She is gentle, caring, not malevolent, simply lost. And lonely. She takes what little companionship she can from her hosts, the people she has haunted. But she still can’t touch them or talk to them. To them, she’s not even as solid as the air.
Then she meets James, another ghost left to haunt the Earth. James is in the body of teenage boy named Billy Blake. Billy’s soul had left his body. Something drove it out. Not just “something.” It’s clear what events in Billy’s life caused this.
Helen and James fall in love, but she still can’t touch him, feel him. Until they find a girl named Jenny, whose soul has also left her body. Now they must wrestle with their new lives, their feelings, and their old lives too. And what will they do when it comes time to leave these bodies?
Sympathetic characters, powerful story
At every point during the story, I sympathized with Helen and felt I was part of her world. Laura Whitcomb clearly knows how to make her characters real. And where other writers might be tempted to pull them out of character in order to push the plot forward, she makes her characters want to do what they do, and the plot comes along with them.
For example, when James tells Helen they must eventually leave the bodies they inhabit, I immediately thought, Ah, but how are you going pull that off? You can’t force Helen to leave Jenny’s body, because we sympathize with Helen, and we would feel cheated if she were merely forced against her will to give up what she loves. But Laura handles this situation like a master. First she takes away the reason Helen is in Jenny’s body, then she gives Helen a noble reason to want Jenny to take back her own body. The way this panned out made perfect sense, but I never saw it coming.
I’ve read novels in which the author builds up the conflict, builds the tension, puts the characters in impossible situations, and then doesn’t know how to get them out. So he invokes deus ex machina (or some variation), and I end up feeling cheated. But as I was reading A Certain Slant of Light, I knew my effort was to be well rewarded. And I am looking forward to Laura Whitcomb’s second novel, which she is currently writing.
Yes, A Certain Slant of Light is Laura Whitcomb’s first novel. I have a prediction: If she gets past novel number 3, she’ll be famous.
Who should not read this book
This is a medium-length novel, advertised as for teenagers. Adults have disagreed about whether it is actually suitable for teenagers, although what they mean is “suitable for their teenagers.” Use parental discretion, and be prepared to discuss.
In any case, if you can’t stand dark fiction, if you get bent out of shape by the portrayal of sex, or by ghosts or spirit possession, or if you’d get too upset that one of the antagonists is a fundamentalist Christian hypocrite— If any of these things would bug you so much that you wouldn’t be able to put them in the context of the story, you probably won’t enjoy this book no matter how good the story is.
Laura clearly called on the fundamentalist stereotype as a basis for Jenny’s family. Writers call on stereotypes all the time to give a broad basis to characters and settings. But remember that Laura is not describing fundamentalists. She’s describing Jenny. Actually, she’s describing the milieu that Helen enters when she takes Jenny’s body. I myself had to remind myself of that, since the portrayal was indeed negative. Even fundamentalists love their kids. And like other parents, they tend not to restrict and discipline their children to the point of abuse, to the point of squeezing the soul from the body. This is an exceptional case. But it fits the story.
This is true of all of these plot devices. They are never there to try to spice up the work. This story does not need to be spiced up. It pulls along whatever elements are necessary to make it work.
In summary, a truly great read. I have no suggestions for improvement. I suck.