A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light
Garth Stein


There’s a hidden stairway, Trevor, and if you find it and strike a match, you will see an apparition in the sudden flash of light. The Ghost of Riddell House.

I really enjoyed reading A Sudden Light, Garth Stein’s latest book. It’s a story about a nearly broken family that is trapped in generations of dysfunction, haunted by unsettled ghosts and spirits. Trevor Riddell is fourteen in 1990 when he travels to Seattle, Washington with his father, Jones. It’s a trial separation for Trevor’s parents. Their finances have collapsed and they’ve lost their home in Connecticut. His mother, Rachel has moved back to England for the summer, she says. And besides his crumbling marriage, something else is not right with Jones. He’s shaky and preoccupied and driven by some unnamed thing.

Jones is there to help sell Riddell House, a deteriorating mansion built by his great grandfather, Elijah Riddell, a prosperous logger and shrewd businessman. Jones hopes the money will save their family. But first he must confront his father, Samuel, who sent him away at sixteen, and his sister, Serena, who was just a girl when he left. Easier said than done. Samuel is often confused, Serena is a little bit creepy and there are noises in the house at night.

Trevor believes that the only way he can save his parents’ marriage is to discover the secrets of both the Riddell mansion and his strange family. As he searches the house for clues, his discoveries only lead to more questions about the relationships between Jones, his mother, Samuel and Serena, and between Elijah and his two sons, Benjamin and Abraham, and about Benjamin’s sudden death. And then there’s Ben’s secret relationship, the one that tears him apart. There are plenty of twists, but it all comes to a head in the mansion’s ballroom, a place where Jones’s mother loved to dance.

I learned the difference between ghosts and spirits in this story. Spirits have already passed through the light, but ghosts are trapped. To help me understand, I found an interesting article entitled “The Differences Between a Spirit and a Ghost.” Check it out if you want to know more about these different forms of afterlife.

Elijah Riddell built his fortune in Seattle logging, a business that destroyed thousands of acres of forests. Stein’s story questions the ethics of actual businessmen like Elijah, who made their millions off Washington’s resources at the turn of the century.

I like the themes and ideas Stein presents in this story. The importance of touch, between people and between people and nature. The feeling of life and the spiritual energy we get from nature, and the idea that we are all connected, through generations. It’s a peaceful idea.

It’s hard to categorize A Sudden Light. I’d describe it as modern, Gothic, paranormal, popular, dysfunctional family fiction. It reminds me a little bit of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontё. Why? No spoilers here!

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