Review of After Light
“After Light, by poet, novelist, and University of Winnipeg creative writing professor Catherine Hunter, is a big, multi-generational novel sprawling across the twentieth century and touching down in places as diverse as Galway in Ireland, the battlegrounds of the Second World War, Winnipeg, and New York. Characters are richly drawn, the plot twists deliciously in the wake of their personal choices or fate’s intrusions, and if the narrative bogs down too long at times, it will seem in the next moment absolutely essential, every line of it. It’s like a family reunion in other words: interesting, crowded, fraught—and immensely satisfying for all those reasons.
The novel sits within a fictional tradition famous in Canadian writing: sagas with some combination of mythic forebears, troubled parents, contemporary characters searching backwards for understanding and reconciliation. ThinkNo Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. Think Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald. It’s a tradition that’s become easy to dismiss or perhaps be embarrassed about. Remember British writer Victoria Glendinning opining after her Giller Prize jury duty in 2009 that Canadians might be too fond of their grannies?
It may be true that the multi-generational saga and its look-alike sisters, the immigrant novel and historical fiction, are too well represented in our literature. It may also be true that the representation is fair in a culture that champions rooted multiculturalism and respects continuity, as opposed to an American culture of exceptionalism, say, in which each generation feels free to reinvent itself.
The point is, the genre exists in good measure alongside a wide range of other Canadian writing, and writers and readers continue to be fond of their grannies. Since trauma is transmissable and memory matters are a deeply human compulsion, the better question is: how—and how well—is the book of this category done? Which brings me back to the novel at hand.
Deidre Quinn, first up in the family genealogy of After Light, does not get the man she loves. She takes matters rather ruthlessly into her own hands, emigrating from Ireland to Brooklyn with her young son Frank. He in turn flees his mother and the complications of his immigrant childhood for Canada. Frank yearns to be an artist but in the meantime signs up for the war. He manages to stay alive but is blinded for his heroism and thus forced into a very different future as a social worker and owner, with his wife Eileen, of a Winnipeg greenhouse.
Daughters Von (Siobhán) and Rosheen suffer on account of the war too, because of its effect on their father. They also inflict and endure betrayals of their own. Scarred, addictive Rosheen flourishes artistically but flames out young. Von, the eldest and responsible child, narrows herself into the world of the greenhouse and her precious long-stemmed roses—“She’s learned how to lock the pain deep inside the body.” The sisters become estranged.
“Every family has a few skeletons in the closet,” someone says off-handedly at a party Frank attends in Toronto. The cliché could not be truer here. Besides the real skeleton named Yorick which hangs in a doctor’s cupboard, there are secrets galore. The characters keep secrets from one another, the author hints at but holds back information. (Catherine Hunter is the author of three mysteries/thrillers so is skilled at foreshadow and tease.) Rosheen is badly disfigured, but what happened to make her so? Beautiful Von lives alone, but who is this Bobby she keeps remembering?
The main skeleton of After Light, however, is protagonist Von Garrison. Her restoration to metaphorical flesh and blood is the book’s ultimate achievement. That slow transformation is seen throughout Von’s engagement with her sister Rosheen’s legacy, as she fulfills the promise she made to travel with her to Ireland and European war sites, to dig into family history, to collaborate on the project enthusiastically dubbed by Rosheen—“as if reading a marquee”—as “Two Granddaughters Tracing the Truth about the Past.”
The reader also experiences the change organically. It is felt in the novel’s structure, in the particular dynamic of how present and past interact. Let me explain. The novel begins with Von. The opening pages are bleak. We see how lonely, tentative, and afraid she is. There’s a sense of flatness—Von is not compelling. When she learns that Rosheen is dead, she puts the greenhouse into the care of her manager and sets off, first for New York and then Ireland. She promised, after all, and she’s dutiful, if nothing else. She buys and packs a journal, wondering “if she’ll remember how to write.”
As soon as Deirdre Quinn’s story appears, something almost magical happens. The narrative perks up and grips the reader. Deirdre is a “legend,” her life a rush of passion, determination, and deceit. We return to Von now and then, we watch her excavate her grandmother’s story, watch fragments of her memory loosen, such as scenes of her and her sister in their Winnipeg home.
And so it goes—the contemporary line of Von’s efforts to clean up Rosheen’s affairs and gather her work for a gallery exhibition weaves through the forward march of the generations, from Deirdre on to Frank on to the girls and beyond, and always those other lives, revealed in their thick humanity, throb with greater vitality than hers. She has a brief fling while in New York but it feels too pretty, superficial somehow. Her long habit of bitterness and resistance to the past not only inhibits her as a character but depresses the momentum of the novel.
But she quickens, gradually, and we come to realize that in animating the dead persons of her family, Von—“the writer”—is being animated by who they really were. And when she reaches “the most dangerous part of the story,” those years “when she and her father were both alive at the same time, both conscious in the same house,” the current quest and past drama begin to reach for each other and powerfully overlap. By the time another mystery is revealed in the person of a young relative and his wise-beyond-her-years partner, Von herself, even if still reluctant, has become compelling. By both discovering and yielding, she contains her history in a new way, not as something to hide but to tell. Best of all, she has “someone to tell.”
The novel’s tone is earnest, conventionally so for the genre, as opposed to the rarer light irony of David Bezmozgis’ three-generational The Free World, for instance. Hunter’s style seems easy, is accessible, but hers is a sure, steady hand in service of a complex tale. She is also a poet (her Latent Heat collection won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award in 1997) and there are insights here as true and devastating as a poem. Her writing about battle and what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder is also impressive. Art is a theme throughout and lovely bits emerge from that—Van Gogh’s “oil-thick skies, like blue butter,” to cite just one example.
The novel’s title is a puzzle, taken I presume from the exhibition of Rosheen’s art, “Afterlight,” which is most fitting, but why one word there and two in the title? Why shift its meaning? Otherwise, this is a book that made me happy on many levels, a book that should be widely read. Happy is an odd final word, I know, as imprecise as social media’s “like” and probably not dignified enough for literary criticism. Nevertheless, it persists in me as a response to Hunter’s accomplishment here and so I’ll let it stand: After Light made me happy.”
More Reviews of this title
“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 accomplishes both but also does so with a nuanced beauty befitting its title. Spanning nearly a century and four generations, the story of the Garrison family is an artfully woven tapestry of family dynamics unfolding against a backdrop of unspeakable heartbreak and, in the end, abiding love. Hunter’s beautiful book is a finalist in the High Plains Book Awards Women Authors category, sponsored in part by the Billings Public Library.
At the heart of the tale is Siobhan "Von" Garrison, fiercely independent and hardened by disappointment and guilt. When Von’s estranged sister, collage artist Roisin Dubh (Rosheen), dies unexpectedly in Amsterdam, Von is called upon to leave the family greenhouse in Winnipeg and journey to Europe to complete the research necessary for Rosheen’s final art show in Brooklyn. Rosheen’s collages are deeply personal fragments from the past, and as Von completes her sister’s final request, she comes to understand Rosheen’s artistic expressions and the solace she found within them.
It is the unfolding of the family history that marks the tale. The book contains three chapters: "Deirdre," "Frank," and "Von and Rosheen." Deirdre Quinn is County Galway born, headstrong and fierce and nearly torn asunder by societal expectation of women and true love lost. “Too much sacrifice,” observed poet W.B. Yeats, “can turn the heart to stone,” and so it seems of Deidre who makes the decisions she must in order to escape to America with her young son Frank. For it is Frank she loves most, and it is Frank she ultimately drives away. Yet love moves in mysterious ways as it is Frank’s daughter Rosheen with whom Deirdre nurtures a special relationship and saves through Frank’s legacy.
Frank Garrison is complicated — darkened by expectation and duty, lit from within by artistic talent and sensitivity. Unable to pursue his true passion, Frank enlists to serve in the Canadian Black Watch during World War Two. Blinded in an enemy attack, he returns home to marry, to work, and to father two daughters. “There is only one thing a blind person cannot do,” declares Frank. “He cannot see.” Yet the mantra rings hollow — Frank cannot control the terrors at night; he cannot raise daughters spared his emotional abuse. And he can no longer create art.
Rosheen is the least developed of the four characters and understandably so as she is the most enigmatic, even to those who love her most. Once beautiful but horribly disfigured in a childhood accident, Rosheen copes by creating a private world of introspective art and a public world of substance abuse and desperate needs for affection and validation. It is sister Von she loves most, and it is Von she drives away. Rosheen’s final art exhibit is entitled Afterlight, and in this afterlight of all that has passed, redemption and hope coalesce for the Garrison girls, Dubh and Siobhan.
If there is any criticism to be levied against this engaging read, it is that the transitions from character to character across great expanses of time are often abrupt and in the beginning of the book, jarring and a bit confusing. As the novel unfolds, the reader acclimates. Otherwise, the story and characters triumph. “In the greenhouse,” the author observes, “all living things bent toward the sun.” And in "After Light," all things bent toward not what appears to destroy the Garrisons but rather what would once again make them whole.
Sue Bach is a retired English teacher who works with Friends of the Billings Public Library and serves on the Library Board of Trustees.”
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, and cousins would tell of past lives. Although her new book, After Light, is a work of fiction, some of the characters and situations were inspired by people she knew or had heard of in her family history.
For example, the early life of the grandmother, Deirdre, is based on Hunter's great-aunt's story of a poor childhood and arranged marriage to a widower with children.
"I always remember my aunt telling that story and it just caught my imagination, being in that situation," she says, "Suddenly going from being a teenager, which was a pretty carefree life then, to running a farm and taking care of someone else's kids."
And Deirdre's son Frank has a similar life to Hunter's father. "In World War II, my dad was blinded and for a while needed to learn how to navigate through this new world he was now in. He was American and had come to Canada to fight for the Canadian army, so after the war the best help and health care available to him wre here. So he not only lost his vision but he also lost his country," says Hunter.
While creating this fictional portrait of four generations, Hunter coupled stories heard with considerable research. "They were at Dieppe, well, when were they at Dieppe? What beach would they have landed on? What boats were they in, what did they wear, where did they set off from?" she says.
"There were some newspaper articles kicking around the house and stuck in the back of photo albums that I had access to. I went to Ireland to the little town where my grandmother had grown up."
Hunter, the author of multiple works of poetry and mystery fiction and a professor at the University of Winnipeg, says writing After Light took a number of years. The book came ot her intermittently – there were blocks of time when the words flowed, and times when she was so busy she didn't work on it at all.
"It was a huge project that really took up a lot of space in my head." she says.
After Light has a dual narriative – the story of Von (Siobhán) and her sister Rosheen (Róisín) around the turn of the twenty-first century and the story Von uncovers about her grandmother Deirdre, who left Ireland for Boston and the hope of a better life. The contemporary storyline is filled out with flashbacks to Von's and Rosheen's childhoods and futher back to the Second World War and their father's experiences. The result is a powerful family saga, delving into ideas of survival and resilience.
"It's a story I've always wanted to tell, all my life," says Hunter, "and kind of explore the way that trauma gets passed on from one gereration to the next." ”
“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 they shape the lives of both those who keep the secrets and those who are unaware of them.
The first secret is held by Deirdre Quinn, a young Irish woman who crosses the Atlantic to escape her past and make a better life for herself and her infant son. The second secret is held by her granddaughter Siobhán (Von) Garrison, trapped in a life she feels is not the one she should be living.
Both secrets surface after Von's younger sister Ròisín (Rosheen) dies in New York. Her death compels Von to explore her sister's life and follow the research Rosheen began, tracing their grandmother's life in Ireland and their father Frank's role as a soldier with the Canadian army in the Second World War.
Hunter, who teaches English and creative writing at the University of Winnipeg, is the award-winning author of three poetry collections, three previous novels and a novella, as well as essays and reviews. Her suspense novel Queen of Diamonds was shortlisted for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and Carol Shields City of Winnipeg Book Award in 2007.
She skilfully interweaves the stories of three generations throughout the book's three sections. Each generation sees its brightest hopes dashed through circumstances beyond its control. Deirdre's plan to marry her true love goes awry when her lover fails to appear at their planned rendezvous. Her son Frank's dream of becoming an artist is destroyed when shrapnel blinds him right after he saves the lives of a Dutch sister and brother in the last months of the war. Von's passion for writing and hopes of marrying her young fiancée vanish due to the need for her to keep the family nursery business running and care for her disabled father.
Complicating Von's life further is Rosheen's drug and alcohol addiction. When Von first begins to sort through the artwork and folders filled with papers that Rosheen leaves behind in their grandmother's Brooklyn apartment, she can't make sense of what her sister was working on. Rosheen's collages, held in high regard by other artists and gallery owners, seem to be simply an extension of the drawings that filled her school notebooks. However, as Von learns more about the lives of her sister, father and grandmother, many things become clear.
Hunter's thorough research into the lives of Brooklyn residents in the early decades of the 1900s and the battles fought by the Canadian Black Watch in the Second World War are displayed within her characters' lives as she details their hardships and triumphs. She has a personal link to the character of Frank Garrison -- her own father was an American who joined the Canadian army. He too was wounded at Dieppe and blinded in the Netherlands.
Following the war, Frank attends university and trains as a social worker despite his blindness, but still resents being unable to pursue fine arts studies and a career as an artist. He's also plagued by terrible nightmares triggered by his wartime experiences, during which he terrorizes his wife and daughters. Hunter reveals how many young men were traumatized by their wartime experiences but had to keep their experiences locked inside -- they were too horrible to share with loved ones.
Hunter's fictional family has touches that will resonate with Winnipeg readers -- the Garrisons' nursery business is located on the outskirts of St. Boniface near the Seine River. She writes of summer trips to Grand Beach, Clear Lake and Lake of the Woods.
Yet the sections of her story that take place in Cobh, Ireland, Brooklyn and Bergen-op-Zoom, the Netherlands also contain realistic detail about local landmarks and architecture. These touches serve to bring her characters to life.
While After Light is a departure from Hunter's previous work, it is an entertaining look at how family secrets and memories are passed from generation to generation.”
“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 the light in order to heal.
After Light, a new novel from Winnipeg author and poet Catherine Hunter, is a family saga that weaves back and forth in time from Ireland in the 1920s, through the Second World War, to 1990s Manitoba.
Von Garrison has to leave the safety and comfort of her greenhouse in St. Boniface when her estranged younger sister, Rosheen, dies in Brooklyn.
Von discovers the sister she wrote off as an addict who can’t be trusted, was in fact a well-regarded artist. Rosheen’s art work forces Von to reexamine her family’s troubled past. Von reluctantly agrees to fulfill Rosheen’s dying wish and embarks on a journey to Ireland and the battlefields of Europe to bring her family’s story to light.
Hunter’s riveting story never wavers. Her characters are complex and interesting. Deirdre, the matriarch who leaves Ireland under a cloud of scandal, is shrewd and small-minded but her hard-hearted decisions make her a compelling character.
Her most heart-breaking action destroys her son Frank’s attempts to expand his limited world through art.
“He was drawing the world in at his eyes the way he drew breath, pulling it through his body, and then letting it pour out again through the muscles of his arms, his hands and his fingers…To draw a live person was even more exciting, a way to worship the human body.”
When his mother’s betrayal shatters his dreams of art school, Frank enlists. He loses his sight while saving lives during the war. His PTSD traumatizes and severely damages his daughters, Von and Rosheen.
Rosheen, like her father, needs art to understand her world.
“The best artists drew your attention to those things. Things most people didn’t notice. The dark blue of blood blooming privately under the skin. The exit wound on her father’s arm, it’s silvery radiating lines, like a burst star. Even her own scar. The graceful angle of its curve as it descended…She wondered if anyone would ever look at her and really see that.”
Without giving away the heart of the story, Rosheen transforms her family’s wounds into art and allows her sister to see her family history in a new light.
“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 as a poet but has also published several slender, clever and genre-bending mystery novels. (See the July 16, 2014 post below.) After Light, at 442 pages, is a more ambitious book and probably her most personal yet. The character Frank Garrison is based on her father, who fought in the Canadian Army during World War II and was blinded as a result of wounds sustained in Holland after the D-Day invasion.
The story takes up a lot of territory in both time and space. The action runs from 1916 to the present and ranges through Ireland, New York City, Toronto, Winnipeg and Holland. Time slips back and forward but Hunter handles these flashbacks deftly so that the reader is never lost.
After Light is the story of the Garrison family and of how betrayals, small and large, reverberate down the generations. Life is hard for the Garrisons. A girl is forced into marriage with an older man; a boy’s artistic ambitions are stifled by poverty and war; a father’s PTSD blights the life of his family; a child experiences a life-changing disfigurement. The tragedy of these characters is that, in their attempts to overcome these circumstances, they take actions that seem to solve an immediate problem but have dire consequences down the road.
There are whiffs of Yeats and doom-laden Irish mythology here. It can be no accident that Hunter named the matriarch of the Garrison family Deirdre, who, in the legend, avoids marriage to the aging King Conchubor by fleeing with her lover Naoise. Escape, for both Deirdres, sets off a chain of sorrows.
But this is not a dreary book. The story telling is compelling. The writing is well crafted but not showy. Alongside the frailties of her characters Hunter places the healing and transformative power of art. It is this transcendent vision that you’re left with at the end of the book.”