Synopsis: Dominated by a few old, founding families, Germantown was mired in tradition and hearsay. All that changed once the Picketts arrived. No one knew what to make of them at first, and no one could have predicted the unbelievable tragedy this family would bring to the small town. Set against the backdrop of the rural North Carolinian piedmont during the Great Depression, Amidst This Fading Light explores life, death, and what it means to carry on as we deal with what fate forces upon us, both the light and the dark, to persevere and survive or to be swept away by time and inescapable memory.
Genre: Historical Fiction: American Great Depression
Amidst This Fading Light is a wonderfully written work about a horrible tragedy. Truly, this is one book that I wish I could take back to one of my college classes to analyze alongside my peers and under the guidance of a professor. There are so many themes and big questions brought up through the stories inside, including personal identity, grief, mental health and psychological questions, the role of family, and more.
Described as “a novel in stories,” Amidst This Fading Light tells the story of a town over several years. Each story provides insight into a character’s life, and eventually you see that all of those separate stories come together to tell one overarching story. This is unique, and very effective; Rebecca Davis utilizes every possible benefit of writing this way. To name just a few: we are able to learn about the personal lives of more characters than traditional formatting allows; a timeline is built slowly, with gaps filled in by later stories and events subtly foreshadowed in earlier stories; the general story is that of the town, not just that of one or two individuals or even a family; and multiple angles are explored for heavy topics. I am sure there are more, but those are at least the elements that stick out to me.
When I mentioned this book in my last WWW Wednesday post, I did not think that I would be able to get into and really like it. I knew that something horrible would happen, and when I realized that whatever it was would happen to characters that I could actually get to know, I was not looking forward to it. The farther I read, the more convinced I became of Davis’ genius. Somehow, she managed to take an awful tragedy, something which no one should want to read about, and made me need to keep reading. The writing is some of the best I have ever read; I was not just intrigued, though that word could apply too. There is something in the way that she treats the events, people, and even the place that delves into the human psyche and searches for answers to questions which do not have simple answers. Some may not have answers which can be articulated at all. Not only does she look at How could someone do something so vile? but also How does someone keep surviving afterwards? Again, because of the style, these questions are analyzed from numerous perspectives, but not in a blunt manner. Each story is its own story, providing a piece of the puzzle to the answer. Each story is necessary to have a complete idea. From an academic literary analysis/book nerd perspective, I could ramble for pages about how well-written this book is, but I’ll save any more on that for the next time I need to write a paper about what it means to be truly human.
Perhaps the most rattling aspect is that this book was inspired by (spoiler alert in the link) an actual tragedy from the author’s hometown. It’s one thing to read about fictional murder and evils, but it changes the atmosphere when you know that what you are reading about actually happened (or at least something very similar). Suddenly the story becomes so much more: realer, heavier, and more important somehow. It becomes more difficult to read because it is true.
This is not something to read if you have a hard time moving on from what you read, or if your mood is intensely impacted by what you read. It is violent and dark, to the point that I almost want to advocate for adding some sort of warning label to the book. What is repeatedly referred to as a “tragedy” in the official description as well as my own review cannot be fully comprehended by such a simple term, although I know no better word or phrase. Adding adjectives like horrendous, vile, and unfathomable bring it closer, but still fall short. If you have any empathy at all, this is painful. In the author profile included with my ARC, Davis claims to want “readers to feel the gravity of tragedy, yet still feel the potential for growth and hope.” Unfortunately, I did not come away from reading ATFL feeling very hopeful. Yes, growth is witnessed, and time keeps going, but the finality of death has so thoroughly permeated the town and characters that only muted hope is visible. The final short story serves as a reminder that, even though we may not individually face the same atrocity, everyone faces tragedy and grief in some form or another throughout their life.
Whether or not to recommend this book weighs heavily on me because it depends very much on the reader as to whether or not this book is a good choice. The writing is brilliant, and I highly recommend it on that fact alone. However, due to the content of the stories, I urge potential readers to use your own discretion in deciding to read ATFL. The subject is not light and it is not to be read lightly. There is nothing trite or easy in the writing; if you are willing to look at one of the darkest results of humanity’s free will, to listen to people (not just characters) who have faced unthinkable loss as they find a way to continue with their lives, and to consider some of life’s most difficult questions, then this is the right choice.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.