Best-selling author Garth Stein sets his latest novel in Riddell House, a century-old mansion in secluded wilderness. You may actually consider this massive log and stone home one of the characters in Stein’s Victorian-inspired narrative, A Sudden Light. The three-story mansion is broken-down, shrouded in creeping ivy. Inside, its old bones creak, its empty rooms moan. Although Riddell House has been home to his relations for decades, 14-year-old Trevor Riddell has never visited it. Upon entering for the first time, he is taken aback: “It was like a time capsule, recently defrosted from the center of a giant glacier. A fully intact world from turn-of-the-century Seattle; a museum. A dusty, faded moth-eaten museum.” Even though the premise is clichéd, Stein creates a palpable, blood-tingling atmosphere in the first chapters.
The fate of Riddell House is a prominent theme in A Sudden Light, alongside young Trevor’s mission to help his father, Jones, survive a trial separation. A grown-up Trevor tells us “somewhere along the way, my father had gone wrong and my mother stopped loving him… I could fix him. I could pull him together, and I believed that by the end of the summer, if I did my job right, I could deliver my father to my mother as if he were a regular, loving person, like when she first met him.” I thought that a father and son working on their strained relationship was a good angle, but as the story progresses, Stein veers off in another direction. Jones frets about his wife, who is now living in England. He dwells on his recent bankruptcy. He clashes with estranged Grandpa Samuel. Jones’ preoccupations become a convenient distraction for Trevor to explore the mansion instead of an urgent issue to remedy. As a result, the disengaged characters come off as dubious and two-dimensional.
Obvious clues and signs about his dark family history abound, tugging at Trevor’s curiosity. Our young hero soon discovers a hidden staircase and a catacomb of a basement, hears footsteps and far-off music, and notices belongings disappearing from their rooms. He also encounters the spirits that inhabit the mansion. Trevor’s sleuthing quickly leads to the discovery of letters and diaries that help him unravel a century-old family saga. The writer places too much emphasis on exploring the backstory of Trevor’s great-uncle. I lost interest in the story at this point. It became too predictable, too trite. The urgency of present-day problems is all but lost. Too much depends on Trevor unearthing old family secrets: the fate of the crumbling Riddell estate, the reconciliation of his parents, and the appeasement of the spirits haunting the mansion. It’s a lot for the reader to swallow.
Although A Sudden Light seems to be a tribute to Victorian, ghost-story writer Charlotte Riddell, the story lacks heart. I was disappointed with the predictability of the plot and the flat characters. Perhaps the over-wrought ending left a bitter taste in my mouth. Most likely, I wanted the story to resonate like Garth’s previous novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain. Heck, if the writer could give a genuine, tear-jerking voice to a canine narrator in that book, you’d think he could give ghosts and elderly men as much depth. Magical undercurrents exist in A Sudden Light. I simply didn’t fall under its spell.
*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*