Imagine you're walking through a pristine old growth forest, dense with splayed ferns and greened by waves of coastal mist. The air is cool beneath the thick canopy; you can smell muddy bark where it meets emerald moss and the tang of pine. In A Sudden Light, Garth Stein's new novel about a timber baron's haunted legacy and the landscape of loss and longing he leaves behind, Pacific Northwest readers will find much that is familiar. And yet, what makes Stein's fourth novel such a delight are the ways in which he subverts these expectations.
At the center of the North Estate, the grand setting for this modern day ghost story, a huge mansion crafted from the giant trees its original owner made a fortune cutting down, lies in near ruin. Our protagonist, 14-year-old Trevor Riddell, returns with his bankrupt father to the family's much-storied estate in order to finalize the details of its sale. Maybe, just maybe, by restoring their fortunes, Trevor's mother and father can put their problems behind them and save their marriage. What seems like a simple task on the first few pages is complicated by a scheming sister, Trevor's aunt, and a batty grandfather who appears to be suffering from dementia. In the chapters that follow, Trevor explores the massive home where his father grew up, its twisting hallways and dozens of soot-stained hearths. He discovers mysterious hidden chambers, and stumbles into a troubled past. Will the family's darkest secrets confirm their worst fears, or shed new light on a moment of history buried by time and circumstance?
While A Sudden Light couldn't be more different than Stein's breakout success, The Art of Racing in the Rain (which was a New York Times international bestseller and has sold more than four million copies), what remains consistent is the author's mastery of scene and captivating characters. It comes as no surprise that Stein found success as an actor/filmmaker and playwright early in his career. The cinematographic quality of Stein's prose here makes you want to cast the film adaptation as you read. However, as is rarely the case, Stein doesn't sacrifice thematic heft for dramatic affect. In fact, the mansion as metaphor (aren't houses always thus in literature?) speaks volumes to the deeply conflicted feelings we Westerners share about the vanishing wilderness, and the march of modernity into our most wild places. Trevor, who serves as both the representative of a new generation, while simultaneously entranced by the lure of the past, discovers something at the heart of human experience, no matter when or where you come from. "Perhaps that is what life is all about, the search for such a connection. The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand."
7 pm, Wednesday Feb. 11, Bend High School Auditorium (part of the Deschutes Public Library's Author! Author! series), $20; 6 pm, Friday, Feb 13, at the Belfry in Sisters, sponsored by Paulina Springs Books Store. 5 pm, Saturday Feb. 14, at the SHARC Center in Sunriver, sponsored by Sunriver Books & Music.