The Light Fantastic, Sarah Combs
"The Light Fantastic is
a tense, shocking, and beautifully wrought exploration of the pain and
pathos of a generation of teenagers on the brink—and the hope of moving
from shame and isolation into the light of redemption."
That's good jacket copy. It's also accurate. The subject matter and countdown format necessitate tension; the story is an overt waiting game. The curated historical details and grim reveals supply steady shocks to the system, like small pushes as you read rather than electrifying lines. But the truest of the copy's promises is that this tale is beautifully wrought. Here is one of my favourite, non-spoiling excerpts:
It weighs more than sorrow, and much more than regret. Delaware can’t
even say what it looks like, because that’s the thing with shame: After a
while you might dare to open your eyes, thinking maybe you’ve managed
to forget about it this time, just for a second — but no. There it is.
Always there. It might once have been attached to whatever it was you
said (or didn’t say), whatever it was you did (or failed to do), but it
is now its own dark creature, separate from and larger than the thing
that gave it life. It keens its high, silver scream in your ears, the
sound of echoing mirrors. It feeds and hungers and preens, and it will
not go away.
Combs can certainly weave those words. I think the text also succeeds in making palatable truly dark and current themes through serving hope for dessert. The scales teeter at times though.
The Light Fantastic is also a fragmented, at times over-said, highly American work which will disappoint readers seeking closure or a tight story.
There are seven characters who narrate their consciousness and action. Yup, you read it right; seven. At least 5/7ths of this works. I could have done with a relationship tree on the overleaf, but I made do. I appreciated how these vignettes united to create an overall picture of a troubled sector within a generation instead of adhering to any one individual's story. That didn't make it easy, nor do I think it will sit well with all readers. I would be more enthusiastic about the interwoven narratives if there had been even one less (if you've read it, please let me argue for my chosen character's cut). Thankfully the voices were different enough that I could usually orientate myself fairly quickly each chapter, but there were definitely some chapter opening-re-reads.
The text is allusion-rich (even the title is a quote), and while these inclusions are pertinent, some came a little too often and too awkwardly. I could buy that a considerable cross-section of people could have a common word string running on repeat in their mind, but I also tired of its repetition continuing beyond this point being established. 90% of the time I felt I was given credit to join the dots, but the remaining 10% I was pointed back to the source texts even though the connection was obvious.
[Partial spoilers in this paragraph:] I have sadly spent too long down shady rabbit holes lined with the search results for American school shootings; I'm prone to horror-tinted curiousity in short bursts before I virtually slap myself back. As a result I entered this book primed for the telling. It also meant I was a step further removed than many readers -- those who attend/ed American schools -- for whom living through drills and shut-downs would have experienced an intensity I could not. This story was other. I was still looking in on a world that felt far removed. The desperation and depression plaguing the teens wasn't foreign, but the machinations explored to cope decidedly were.
Free from sex scenes and sensuality.
Minimal violence (crimes are reported rather than described).
The"beautifully wrought exploration" made up for the lack-lustre narratives, which together served their purpose in telling a shared story. I wasn't completely satisfied with the ending, but I was with the overall message and impact.
Bonus: the cover is gorgeous.
Review copy received from Walker.