Friday 6 September 2013

Past on Paper: 1910s YA REVIEW - 'A Gathering Light', Jennifer Donnelly (Bloomsbury, 2003)

Torn between a loyalty to her grief-stricken, struggling family, her first experience of romance and a burning desire to be a writer, a sad event forces Mattie to piece together a local mystery whilst making an important decision about her future.

I've been thinking a little too much about how I approach this feature - am I going to focus more on their historical context or just how good the story is? Unless I have easy access to a time machine, I'm not really in a position to judge their historical accuracy. Is this even important when reviewing book? Surely whether or not it's a gripping read should matter the most. You might have already gathered that I'm still a bit undecided about all of this. Maybe I should just get on and review the book...

Well, I'm a bit late to the party on this one. Ten years late to be accurate. Jo told me to read it ages ago, but I'd been putting it of for some reason. This is always the way when I'm faced with an 'acclaimed' book - am I just setting myself up for inevitable disappointed? If I don't enjoy it as much as I feel I'm supposed to, does this mean I'm not getting it I'm being a bit thick? Or maybe I was just putting this one off because it has a bit of a boring cover. Probably a mixture of all of the above. God, I really need to stop asking all these questions and just get on with it.

I was definitely mulling over this a little too much, because it turns out there was no reason to worry whatsoever...

A Gathering LightSo here we are in the 1910s, in the US, in a place and period I know nothing about. The fact that whether I did or not is completely irrelevant is testament to just how fantastic this book is. With a historical novel, I think it can maybe go in one of two directions - building a story around a famous incident and having that dramatically impact on the characters and plot, or having the story just 'sitting' on its setting, absorbing attitudes and conventions of the time, but never being completely dictated by them. This book definitely falls into the latter camp - when we were introduced to Mattie and her surroundings, I was initially a bit wary that this was going to be overshadowed by ISSUES - attitudes towards women and race, for example - but it manages to explore these (which it should) without the brilliant central story getting lost at all. This is about Mattie and how she comes to make an important decision whilst being pulled in many different directions - a familiar YA set up and skillfully told with the perfect balance of plot, place, and prose. I was initially more intrigued by the real-life murder mystery element, but that's not what this book is about at all, rather it's used as a device to push Matt's story along and very beautifully it does it too.

I remained on the ladder, looking at the figurine in my hand. You're wrong, Aunt Josie, I thought. It's not pride I'm feeling. It's another sin. Worse than all the other ones, which are immediate, violent, and hot. This one sits inside you quietly and eats you from the inside out like the trichina worms the pigs get. It's the Eight Deadly Sin. The one God left out. Hope.

The time shift method to a little while to get used to, but once all the pieces fall into place, this is an unusual, mind-blowing bit of story-telling. I highly recommend it whether you're after some cracking historical fiction or not.


  1. I started reading this once before and I couldn't really get into after the first few chapters. I just wasn't connecting. BUT! Then I read another book by Jennifer Donnelly (Revolution) and that book was so amazing that it makes me think that I'd like to pick this book up again and give it another chance...

    1. The time shift in the first few chapters confused the hell out of me, so I can see where you're coming from with that. But once it all clicked into place I was hooked - such beautiful writing and the way the she mixed fiction and real life was seamless. Going to hunt down her other books. Thanks Michelle!

  2. I've not heard of this before, but your review has got me interested! I shall have to pick it up :)