Reading By Lightning : Reading the Amazon First Novel Shortlist

*Please click for background information and criteria.*

Reading by Lightning has received some good press and let me tell you, there's nothing more depressing than being told that a book is fabulous and then just not liking it, not liking it at all.

The story revolves around young Lily Piper who lives in the Depression-era prairies. She is unable to please her God-fearing mother and unable to connect to her unstable father (who is prone to nervous breakdowns). Lonely and misunderstood, she takes to imagining her father's journey from England as part of the Barr Colonists. Lily's father 'saves' her by sending her to tend for her grandmother in England, where she is free to be herself and to fall in love. WWII changes everything, though, and Lily's life is thrown into turmoil once again.

There are several problems with this novel. First, the plot is stretched out too thinly. Thomas indulges in a variety of tangents and diversions, especially in the first 100 pages. This means that Thomas' occasional wit and elegant turns of phrase are weighed down by the ponderous pace of the story.

Second, the central metaphor, that we experience insights like flashes of lightning, wasn't sufficiently weighty to carry the book. The concept isn't teased out, it feels very bald, and so I felt no corresponding revelation. Lily says of her father: "It was the strangest thing. When he had one of his spells, when he fell into it, he was always seized with recognition, in this strange, rough country was swept back to a place, where his true self had been before..." Yet, we are not given enough sense of her father's character to understand or care about these selves.

Nor is Lily's character fully fleshed out. We understand from her mother that she is prone to 'sin', we understand that men like her company, we understand that she longs for freedom but not once does she emerge as a person. She roused neither my sympathy, nor my hatred, nor my envy, nor my love - no feeling at all - and to me, this is a cardinal sin in fiction.

So, I wasn't taken with the book. Let's use my criteria to see if it classifies as part of the Canon:

1. Cover: Pass. No sepia, no lake. Yet, I have no love for this cover, the font style and colour cheapens it.

2. Colonialism/Canadian Frontier: Fail. Depression-era Canada passes barely but Lily's imaginings of her father's past as part of the Barr Colonists part in parcel with naive British ideology make this a novel very much about our colonial past.

3. Theme of Futility/Failure: Fail. *SPOILER* Lily, despite temporarily gaining acceptance, freedom and love in England, finds herself back in the stifling atmosphere of her Prairie home, trapped with her dependent mother, her lover lost to her.

4. National/regional identity: Fail. There is a huge contrast between Lily's life of liberty in England and her puritanical upbringing in Canada and this colours the identity of both states. Thomas' inclusion of the devastating deception of the Barr Colonists is another commentary on identity and colonial roots.

5. Use of Humour/Irony: Pass. Thomas has a gleeful sense of humour, an odd contrast to the above. This humour emerges in through Lily's English friends/relatives and their flighty ways are welcome relief from the themes of guilt and tragedy. Says Wilf: "A lad in khaki talks like a toff, they think he's one of those fuckin' plants. Like the nun with the hairy knuckles who was spotted on the Clapham omnibus." Ha.

6. Idolization/Demonization of Nature: Pass. The novel's tension is derived through human interaction, not opposition to the natural world.

7. Gothicism: Fail. Protestant hypocrisy and mental illness both feature. Lily's father's "spells" are described as "strange" and that he is "seized with recognition", giving them a supernatural tinge. There is also a pervading, fatalist sense of disaster throughout.

VERDICT: This is old-school Can-Lit. It focuses on the particular experience of white immigrants, uses familiar Gothic elements and has an overarching air of futility. From the rave reviews, I garner that this type of book has an audience and a dedicated one at that. Yet, I will press on, looking for something of a different flavour.

Reading by Lightning/Joan Thomas / Goose Lane Editions / PB, 2008

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