About the book

  • Shortlisted for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction
  • Shortlisted for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award
  • Shortlisted for the McNally Robinson Book of the Year
  • Shortlisted for the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher

After Light is the sumptuously rendered tale of four generations of the Garrison family, whose story begins when young Deirdre flees Ireland in 1920 to seek a better life in Brooklyn. The secrets she carries with her will bend the fates of not only Deirdre, but all who come after her. Her son Frank, a promising young artist, is blinded in WW2 and forced to create a whole new life for himself. He marries and settles in Canada, where his wife raises hothouse roses on the frozen prairie. But the war has shaken him deeply, and his two daughters, Von and Rosheen, live in terror of his violent outbursts.

As the girls grow up, they grow apart. Rosheen, badly scarred by her childhood, takes refuge in her art and her pain medication. Von falls in love with a young man who cannot understand her sense of duty toward her troubled family. And then the family is torn apart by a shocking act of betrayal and an unbearable tragedy. In the aftermath, Rosheen moves to New York to live with Deirdre and begins the work that will one day make her name as an artist. But Von, too bitter to engage with the world, clings to home and refuses to care for anything except the roses in the greenhouse. When Rosheen dies and leaves behind an unfinished art project, based on family history, intended for an upcoming major show in New York, Von is forced out of seclusion.

In her efforts to complete this project before the opening of the exhibit, Von travels to Ireland and Holland, completing Rosheen's research and gathering her art works. In the process, she discovers that the past is much more complicated — and richer — than she could have ever imagined.

About the author

Hunter, Catherine

Catherine Hunter teaches English at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to her previous thrillers, Where Shadows Burn and The Dead of Midnight (Ravenstone Press), she has published one spoken word CD, Rush Hour, and three collections of poetry, Necessary Crimes, Lunar Wake, and Latent Heat, for which she received the Manitoba Book of the Year award.

Excerpt

from from Chapter 1 —1.4

When Deirdre had been married nearly four years, Galen became embroiled in a bitter disagreement with his donkey. On several occasions, when the cart was loaded with pork and Galen was ready to take it to market, the beast refused to pull. One morning in March, the donkey drove Galen nearly into an apoplexy. He chased the animal around the barnyard, cursing so fiercely the children hid under the covers in their beds. Finally he cornered the poor thing and began to flail at it with a switch. The donkey twisted and bucked, dodging the blows. So Galen circled around behind it, trying to catch it unawares. Deirdre could see the donkey’s bared teeth, and knew this was a bad idea, but she did not call out a warning. She was not on Galen’s side in this dispute. Let him get himself in trouble. And he did. He brought the switch down hard across the donkey’s hind quarters, and the animal raised both hind legs and kicked him square in the chest. Galen’s mouth opened in astonishment. He walked into the house and sat down on a chair.

“Galen?” she said. “Are you all right?”

He seemed to be listening to some faraway sound and did not answer.

Deirdre hurried out to see to the donkey. It shied away, but she grabbed hold of its bridle and tied it up in the barn. Ten minutes later, when she looked in on Galen again, he was stone dead. This was the story she told the constable, who wrote it down in his ink-spattered book.

The story of the donkey’s kick spread through the nearby farms and some of the farmers arrived to help. The men gathered in the yard to build the coffin, and the women came into the house, bringing soup and pies. They fed the children and sent them back to bed.

Deirdre did not speak to anyone, except to thank them. She rode off on the blue bicycle down the road toward Galway. She was going for the priest, said some of the neighbour women. She was after buying new clothes for the children, said others, so they’d look respectable-like at the graveyard. They set to washing the body and preparing it for burial, and when Deirdre got home that night, Galen was snug in the coffin. Deirdre sat in a chair against the wall with her eyes wide open, apparently seeing nothing. The neighbours stayed up all night with the body, and some of the men got drunk on Galen’s whisky, but it was a quiet wake, a sombre affair, given the young wife and the seven children left behind and the fact that nobody, not a single person any of them could think of, had liked Galen O’Nolan or would miss him.

She had the children’s faces washed and their hair combed for the funeral service at the gravesite next morning. But the neighbours remarked there were no new clothes to be seen. The prayers were said. Deirdre tossed a handful of dirt onto her husband’s coffin and stood quietly by for the burial. Then she took the children home.

The day before, when she’d gone to town, she had not been buying clothes. She’d been at the office of George O’Malley, lawyer and real estate agent, who represented the Dublin man wanting to purchase the north field. Galen had refused that offer, but now, Deirdre told George, the entire estate was for sale. Not only the cottage and tower ruins but the house and fields. The barn, the chicken coops and chickens, the pigpens and the very pigs themselves.

As it turned out, the Dublin businessman didn’t want the animals, so Deirdre drove the pigs to the farmer’s market near Oranmore. She piled the cart high with Galen’s clothing and household items, a crate of chickens and the bicycle. She hitched the donkey to the cart, taking care to treat him kindly, and walked beside him, heading east, herding the pigs with a stick. Other women were walking to market, too, with smaller loads, a basket of eggs or a single sheep. But Deirdre did not want to be talking to anyone.

At the market, she sold the pigs and chickens for a good price and then she went into the shops of the town. She sold Galen’s pocket watch and his tools and his shoes and pants and even his hat and his handkerchiefs. She sold the butter churn and the pitchfork and the kitchen crockery. Finally she sold the donkey and cart to a carter from up near Sligo. By the time she pedalled the bicycle home in the dark, the moon was rising and her apron pockets were heavy with coins.

The following day she was seen on the road, the seven wee ones trailing after her. She marched them past the graveyard, heading east, and that was the last anyone in Galway ever saw of her.

* * *

Little Faye had been sick for days, growing thin and coughing, and she could not walk. So Deirdre set Faye on the seat of the bicycle and walked along beside it, holding the girl upright. She told Nora to carry Brendan, who was five and fat, and Nora staggered under his weight.

“Where are we going?” Nora asked, and Deirdre would only tell her they were going to the main road where they might find a ride. She wheeled the bicycle forward and called to them all to hurry or be left behind. The children tripped and fell and cried and rubbed at their faces with their dirty fingers. From time to time Nora’s arms sagged and she let Brendan’s heels drag on the ground as she lugged him along. The smallest stragglers got farther and farther behind until Deirdre could no longer see them, and she had to wait for them to catch her up. After half a mile the twins, who were six, sat down in the dirt. Deirdre lowered Faye to the ground and set her in the grass beside the bicycle. She pulled one twin up by his arms. Then she pulled up the other. But as soon as the second was standing, the first sat down again. Then Margaret began to wail. Nora put Brendan down hard and he wailed too. Deirdre smacked him, but it didn’t stop his noise. It never did. And if a man with a cart and two horses had not come along right then and offered to let them all ride, she didn’t know what she might have done next. The man was a horse trader, he told them, on his way to Athlone. He hopped down and helped them all in, Deirdre and the seven children, and the bicycle. When they reached the turn off to Ballinasloe, Deirdre asked to be let out and the horse trader obliged. He tipped his hat and said good day, and Deirdre wheeled Faye on the bicycle into the town, with the others trailing after her.

“Where are we going?” Nora asked again. Deirdre said they would stop with the nuns a while and take their tea. When they reached the convent gate, she pulled a bell rope, and a young novice came and admitted them to the yard. Deirdre asked for some bread and water for the children, and the novice hurried away, asking her to wait. Deirdre laid the bicycle down and told the children to come through the gate and march up to the front door. But they had all flopped down in the grass. Brendan had already fallen asleep. Deirdre grasped one of his hands and wrenched him to his feet. The twins, not wanting similar treatment, helped each other up, and Margaret helped Faye. Faye was dreadfully pale, now that Deirdre took a closer look. She leaned on Margaret as they walked to the convent door. Fiona came last. Deirdre had washed Fiona’s fair, wispy hair that morning but now it was coarse with grit from the road and tangled by the wind. She reached down to sweep a lock off the girl’s forehead. Fiona raised her wide blue eyes. She was tired and sore. Too much walking and too many parents lost in her short existence. Too much change.

Six children obediently crowded onto the stone landing outside the convent. Behind them, Nora, eleven and suspicious, still stood outside the gate, her arms crossed over her chest and her sly, narrow eyes fixed steadily on Deirdre.

Deirdre walked toward Nora, looking straight into her eyes. Nora did not waver until Deirdre was right in front of her. Then she flinched. Her hands came up before her face.

But Deirdre did not strike her. “I’ll just be putting the bicycle away,” she said. She walked past Nora and mounted the bicycle and pushed off with her left foot and began to pedal down the road. She wanted to turn around and take another look at Fiona, but she was afraid that Nora would see her face and know the truth. Nora would cry out and the nuns would come.

Who would sing to Fiona now, when she wept at night? Who would wash her hair? Don’t think of it, she said to herself. You are only going for a ride to take some fresh air. You are off to market to fetch a few potatoes for their tea. And by telling herself this story, she resisted taking that one last look. She pedalled all the way to the curve in the road and disappeared from view.

* * *

The children were eventually discovered. The horse trader told the story to his wife and his wife told her friends and the story got back to Deirdre’s parents. Deirdre’s father went to Ballinasloe to look for the children, and through his inquiries he learned that his daughter had delivered them up to the nuns. The nuns told him she knocked on the convent door and begged for some bread and water and then, when the sisters weren’t looking, she jumped on the bicycle and pedalled away like the wind. The nuns ran an orphanage, as Deirdre must have known, and they said they would keep the O’Nolan children with the other orphans while they waited for Deirdre to return. But before anyone could discover all this — indeed, before Galen’s soul could even begin its descent — Deirdre herself had boarded a train and was well on her way to Queenstown.

Reviews

Secrets and lives Winnipeg writer delivers rich, rewarding intergenerational tale Two secrets lie at the heart of Winnipeg writer Catherine Hunter's novel After Light, and... >>

— Andrea Geary Winnipeg Free Press

After Light, by poet, novelist, and University of Winnipeg creative writing professor Catherine Hunter, is a big, multi-generational novel sprawling across the twentieth... >>

— Dora Dueck The Winnipeg Review

A piece of shrapnel pushing its way out of a soldier’s neck, years after the battle that blinded and scarred him, is a powerful metaphor for the need to expose your pain to... >>

— Joanne Kelly Book columnist on CBC Radio Weekend Morning Show

After Light Shines Catherine Hunter’s novel, After Light, is a brave, big-hearted book. It’s also the best book I’ve read so far this year. Hunter made her name first... >>

— Catherine Macdonald Portage and Slain is a blog about Winnipeg books

After Light a Nuanced Unfolding of Family History There are novels that resonate and novels that linger. Canadian writer Catherine Hunter’s haunting "After Light" not only... >>

— Sue Bach Billings Gazette

Shedding Light  Family history at the core of Hunter's latest  Catherine Hunter has a penchant for family history.  She remembers listening to family stories her mom, aunts,... >>

— Yvonne Dick Prairie books Now


Audio

Wednesday, December 2

Winnipeg

CKUW

Catherine Hunter is interviewed by CKUW's Ron Robinson about her new novel, After Light.
(MP3 file, 8:52)

Download the MP3 clip
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