I’d like to tell you that it was a recommendation from a close friend that moved me to buy this book. That, or maybe a knowledge of the author and her work. Possibly a desperate love of semi-fictionalised historical fiction for teenagers? I’d like to be able to say that any of those things were true, but unfortunately I can’t. No, the first thing I saw on picking up a copy of A Gathering Light in Waterstones was this quote from the Sunday Telegraph:
If George Clooney had walked into the room I would have told him to come back later when I had finished.
This book is better than George Clooney. That’s what the reviewer at the Telegraph told me, and though in my opinion, there are several other things I would count as better than George Clooney (mulled wine, snow, dark chocolate digestives), I was curious. So I bought it, read it, and found that I absolutely agreed with this bold, dare I say controversial statement.
Mattie Gokey is a girl desperately trying to keep everyone happy; her father, who needs her help to run the family farm after her mother’s death and her brother’s disappearance; her best friend Weaver, who intends to study law on day but can’t seem to stop getting into fights with people who call him a nigger; her school teacher, who has read some of her stories and has persuaded her to apply to college in New York; and Royal Loomis, the handsome boy from the farm one over, who has taken her out driving and suddenly seems to be imagining a future for the two of them.
As I stand here on the porch of the Glenmore, the finest hotel on all of Big Moose Lake, I tell myself that today – Thursday, July 12, 1906 – is such a day…
…I believe these things. With all my heart. For I am good at telling myself lies.
The story opens as Mattie is working as a waitress at the Glenmore Hotel, where a woman has been found drowned in the lake. Everyone assumes that it was simply a terrible accident, but Mattie is beginning to suspect differently. The man who went out on the lake with her is nowhere to be found, and in Mattie’s apron pocket is a bundle of letters, thrust into her hands earlier that day by the drowned woman with the desperate plea to burn them.
The novel alternates between this thread of the story, based around a real murder that took place at the turn of the century in New York state, and a thread set months earlier, which follows Mattie as she attempts to be everything to everyone, looking after her father and sisters, worrying about her impoverished neighbours and trying to figure out exactly what Royal sees in her, while also secretly harbouring dreams of her own to write and to get a proper education. It’s only really when the two threads of the story meet that Mattie finally figures out what to do and takes action.
Based in part around real events and places, A Gathering Light recreates in amazing detail what life was like for people like Mattie in turn-of-the-century rural America. The extent of Jennifer Donnelly’s research really shows, not least in the three page bibliography at the end, and yet it manages not to fall into the old “I spent all this time researching; let me tell you EVERYTHING I’VE LEARNT” trap. Never having written a historical novel, I may be talking out of turn, but I imagine that this must be really hard to do. You want to research enough so that you don’t get your editor, or worse, your readers pointing out the fact that your heroine couldn’t have flown to New York because planes hadn’t been invented yet, but neither do you want to give the impression that your story has taken place in the middle of a Simon Schama documentary. The little details, however authentic, shouldn’t overshadow the story, but in this case, Mattie’s story is just so interesting, and the writing is so light and beautiful that it’s only once you get to the end that you realise how much you’ve learnt.
One of the things I love most about this novel is the fact that the letters, which Mattie reads in a desperate attempt to find out who the drowned woman was and why she died, are the actual ones written by Grace Brown, who died in Big Moose Lake in 1906. Discovered, in reality, in her hotel room after her death, the letters paint a terribly bleak picture, but in giving them to Mattie, and allowing her life to be changed by them, Jennifer Donnelly has given Grace’s story something of a happy ending.
I suppose that honestly, I chose this novel to begin with because I had read it before and knew I loved it. I hope that I shall read many books for the first time this year, but wanted to start, like Miss R, with an old friend. As I read it though, it occurred to me that it was a good book to start with for more reasons than that. It’s about someone who loves words, and writing and reading. It’s about someone who dreams of being something more than they are. Most of all, it is, after all the sadness and intrigue, an incredibly hopeful book, which seemed like a fitting way to begin the year.