Who would think that the story of a dumpy and word-obsessed widower would have anything of interest to offer? Trust Jamie Langston Turner to show, in her novel Sometimes A Light Surprises, that it does.
Ben has never recovered from the murder of his wife Chloe over 20 years ago. Her death was especially hard to take because of how he treated her in the weeks just preceding. If he’d hoped to jolt her out of the religious kick she was on with his sarcasm and silence, it hadn’t worked.
The murder aftermath was so traumatic, he couldn’t be blamed for giving over the parenting of their four children to his mother, could he? Trouble is, these many years later he and his kids are still estranged.
When young home-schooled Kelly Kovatch applies for a job at the Bazaar he owns and manages, he surprises himself by hiring her. Maybe it’s more curiosity than anything, because she has the same last name as the religious woman who befriended and beguiled Chloe just before her death.
After Kelly comes to work things begin happening. His daughter plans a family holiday and invites Ben. He takes up Chloe’s Bible again. When Kelly’s own mother dies, he makes a point of finding out how her father is coping and gives his strategy a try. Little changes become big ones as he thaws in the warmth of Kelly’s shy concern and compelling advice.
The book is full of wonderful characters. Caroline, Ben’s secretary, is convinced Ben is a little crazy with his obsession over the origins of phrases and his office littered with lists. She, herself, has a hate on for men but a love of mysteries. Some of Ben’s family, especially his driven eldest daughter Shelly, and the bitter Erin, are interesting studies. Then there’s Kelly herself — earnest, sincere, devout, likeable — but so naïve and sheltered it’s almost as if she’s from another galaxy.
Turner often reveals the characters through their thoughts. These are brought to us in a stream of consciousness manner so we are taken on all kinds of rambling journeys to the past and the imagined future. Ben questions the value of his photographic memory as snatches from his reading in Chloe’s Bible come to mind at the oddest times. Of course this is rewarding for the reader because the quotes add wisdom, depth, and layers of meaning.
Turner’s descriptions also shine. I love the family gatherings. Who can’t relate to such a scene?
“’Lavinia spilled Coke,’ Mackenzie called from the living room, and Vera Bridgewater jumped up and ran to the kitchen to get paper towels.
‘Lavinia is not supposed to be drinking Coke,’ Brittany said. ‘Adelaide, what are you drinking? Do you have Coke too?’
‘Oh, I just gave them a taste,’ Vera called from the kitchen. ‘Let them live a little, Britt. They’re on vacation.’ Brittany looked at Grant and sighed.
Well, so much for cutting the mustard, Ben thought. No one seemed the least big interested in the rest of his explanation." (p. 172)
Not surprisingly, family is a theme Turner has woven through the book. Ben’s family is certainly dysfunctional but in Sometimes A Light Surprises there are second chances, grace and redemption. It doesn’t come in a blaze or flash but slowly, as William Cowper describes it in the poem from which the title is taken:
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Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings.
When comforts are declining, he grants the soul again
A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain. (p. 399)
Sometimes A Light Surprises is a quiet but moving and gracious story, with all kinds of wisdom and other delights found on its pages.