A Gathering Light - Jennifer Donnelly
After reading a review of the secret life of bees (which I thoroughly enjoyed) that recommended this book I immediately purchased it. The premise sounded as if it contained everything I enjoyed in the secret life of bees with a bit of an edge to boot.
When Mattie Gokey is given a bundle of letters to burn she fully intends to execute the wishes of the giver, Grace Brown. When Grace Brown is found drowned the next day in Big Moose Lake, Mattie finds that it is not as easy to burn those letters as she had thought. And, as she reads, a riveting story emerges - not only Grace Brown's story but also Mattie's hopes and ambitions for the future and her relationships with her friends and family. Published to widespread acclaim this wonderful novel, part murder mystery and part coming-of-age story, is an astounding and accomplished piece of literature.
I will start of the bat by declaring that I did not enjoy the book as much as I thought I would. That is not to say I did not think it was good but I wanted it to be so much more and left me frustrated in places.
The problem was with the structure. The majority of the book takes place in the past with the odd chapter taking place in the present. It is the present storyline that is lacking in my opinion, when it really should be the most gripping. After all a mysterious murder and a missing suspect should have far more tension then we are treated to here.
Instead, what we experience is a rather tedious and lacklustre situation where Mattie holds on to potential evidence in the form of a series of letters belonging to the murder victim. When Mattie does get around to reading them, the victim who wrote them is so irritating and childish it is quite hard to read. I must stress here that the author's note at the end of the book provides a very good reason for this but unfortunately it did spoil my reading. In the present, Mattie herself is a rather mundane protagonist. She is very subservient (as is the nature of her job), but there is not much in the way to counter this. In places she is almost unrecognisable to the character we read about in her past.
In her younger years, Mattie is more rebellious. She has dreams and aspirations. More importantly, she has interesting characters to interact with. Her father is a tragic and imposing figure who is totally reliant on her as the eldest remaining daughter at home, whilst her teacher is an inspiration. It is the juxtaposition of everybody’s influence on Mattie that conjures an interesting tale. It is all told through an excellent narrative as a child uncovers the realities of the world and discovers love, betrayal and disappointment.
Donnelly has a wonderful ability to portray characters and make you care for them. In the space of some small chapters she introduces characters (such as Mattie’s uncle) who stay with you long after you have finished the book.
Overall, A Gathering Light is a very good book which would have benefitted in my opinion without the murder/mystery plot line.
My rating: 8.3