I’ll admit it. My predisposition (okay, bias) was that I wouldn’t like Annette Gilson’s novel, New Light. She is professor of creative writing and “contemporary literature.” It may be unfair, but I tend to think such authors write with more flourish and exposition than necessary, as if demonstrating their “expertise” to their students. Then, to top it off, the back cover blurb by a noted critic describes the book as a “romance” with its heritage in a romance novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I, of course, have never heard of that work and romance would be near the bottom of any personal ranking of genres.
But Gilson and New Light surprised me. After a start I thought was reinforcing my beliefs about creative writing teachers who write novels, I found myself engaged by a very readable and enjoyable work.
The book tells the story of approximately a week in the life of Beth Martin. After three years of unsatisfying life in New York City, Martin travels to St. Louis to visit her former college roommate. At a party the night of her arrival, she encounters an enigmatic man and shortly thereafter experiences what she can only describe as a vision. The man, who later tells her he knew she would have a vision, holds her as she shakingly tries to absorb and understand what happened.
Known by his acquaintances by the nickname Houdini, he is a neuroscientist researching visions and related phenomena. At turns distant and friendly but always inscrutable, Houdini tells Beth of his plans to visit a commune in southern Missouri devoted to creating a utopian community and exploring a higher level of consciousness through visions. After vacillating a bit, Beth agrees to accompany him.
The commune, New Light, is led by a charismatic woman the community refers to as The Mother. New Life’s residents are both disquieted by Beth’s presence and drawn in by her apparent ability to have visions without engaging in the rituals they use. At New Light, Gilson leads the reader on a couple different tracks. Exactly who is Houdini and what are his ultimate aims? Why is there an underlying sense of tension and foreboding among community members? Why is Beth having visions and what do they mean? Could she be the “messenger” The Mother believes will help guide the commune to its next stage of development?
With Beth as the narrator, Gilson explores, but does not necessarily resolve, these mysteries while at the same time raising thoughtful questions about faith, belief, trust and philosophy. Given the timing of the book and its search through meaning via communal life, some may compare New Light to Justin Tussing’s The Best People in the World. Yet New Light is clearly distinctive and stands on its own. In fact, romance is not a genre that comes to my mind in trying to categorize the book. Likewise, I doubt there are many, if any, other books on the market that can adequately blend chaos theory with what can best be described as New Age concepts.
While likely reflective of my own personal preference, Gilson’s writing seems strongest when she uses shorter, straightforward declarative sentences rather than some of her longer, highly descriptive sentences, particularly in the opening chapters. Stylistically, though, the differences serve their purpose. Broadly speaking, the more detailed sentences set groundwork and background. As and when the action or tension increases, Gilson uses the simpler sentences to help set the tone and pace for the reader.
I still don’t know anything about Hawthorne’s book or the literary heritage of New Light. And this is not the best book I’ve read this year. Yet it’s always a delight when an author defies a reader’s expectations (or biases) and gives them an engaging read.