This has been an odd reading and blogging year so far. I’m only reviewing about one in four or five books I read. Not only because I’m sometimes disappointed in my choices but also because I don’t have enough time to review them. But when I come across a book like Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever and know it will be on my favourites list at the end of the year, then I have to review the book or, at least, write about it.
The novel is set in a fictional small town in Indiana in 1972. It’s a hot summer evening and nine-year-old Katie Mackey, daughter of the richest man in town, takes her bicycle to bring back her library books. She never returns home. Told from the points of view of different narrators, the novel explores a crime and its aftermath, explores themes of loneliness, guilt, shame, and the desperate struggle for happiness.
This isn’t a crime novel, it’s a literary novel about a crime but it’s just as suspenseful as a crime novel. For the longest time we don’t know what happened to Katie, nor who is responsible.
The choice of narrators is not only great and gives the novel depth but it’s also extremely well done. Lee Martin manages to give each of his narrators a very distinct voice. Not an easy thing to do. First we have Katie’s older brother Gilley who feels responsible for the disappearance because he ratted out his sister. He told their parents that she forgot to return her library books. The next narrator is Mr Dee. A lonely, older man who teaches math. He is a bit too fond of Katie. We’re never sure whether his feelings for her a really fatherly or whether he’s a pedophile. This makes him creepy and touching at the same time. Clare is another narrator. She has done the unforgivable. Shortly after her husband’s death, she starts a relationship with a foreigner, Raymond R. Raymond’s voice is the last. He’s the most problematic figure. The most enigmatic and dishonest. Needless to say, that more than one person looks guilty.
Chosing so many narrators allowed Lee Martin to explore many different topics and to depict his characters from many different angles. We see how they perceive themselves, but also what others think about them. In Mr. Dee’s case that’s particularly poignant, We know he has secrets, but we also know something he ignores— some of the villagers know his secrets. This creates a mirror effect that is very arresting.
While I liked the story and the characters, the thing I loved the most was how Lee Martin captured those lazy summer days that seem to never end when you’re a kid or a teenager. It’s also admirable how he shows that even small town people’s lives are complex and full of pain, mystery and beauty.
The Bright Forever is a stunningly beautiful, mellow novel. It is told in lyrical, evocative prose, which suits this bitter-sweet, nostalgic tale so well. I’m not a rereader but I think this is one of a very few books, I’ll pick up again some day.
Here are some quotes to give you an idea:
That dream was still in my head, that crazy dream about Katie and me on Dumbo the elephant and Mr. Dees walking in the clouds. When I opened my mouth, the dream was on my tongue, as was the feeling that I’d had ever since–the sensation that sometimes life was so wonderful it was scary, not to be trusted.
Here’s Clare talking about Raymond
I think it was this: like most of us, he was carrying a misery in his soul. I don’t say it to forgive what he done, [sic] only to say it as true as I can. He was a wrong-minded man, but inside- I swear this is true- he was always that little boy eating that fried-egg sandwich in that dark hallway while the steam pipe dripped water on his head. I don’t ask you to excuse him, only to understand that there’s people who don’t have what others do, and sometimes they get hurtful in their hearts, and they puff themselves up and try all sorts of schemes to level the ground- to get the bricks and joints all plumb, Ray used to say. They take wrong turns, hit dead ends, and sometimes they never make their way back.
And Gilley looking back
I thought to myself then that it didn’t matter where I ended up; I’d always be living that summer in that town, wishing that I had done things differently, tormented by the fact that I hadn’t. I’d never go far enough to be able to escape it. Maybe you’re happy about that. Maybe not. Maybe you’re carrying your own regrets, and you understand how easy it is to let your life get away from you. I wish I could be the hero of this story, but I’m not. I’m just the one to tell it, at least my part in it, the story of Katie Mackey and the people who failed her. It’s an old one, this tale of selfish desires and the lament that follows, as ancient as the story of Adam and Eve turned away forever from paradise.
And one more
When someone you love disappears, it’s like the light goes dim, and you’re in the shadows. You try to do what people tell you: put one foot in front of the other; keep looking up; give yourself over to the seconds and minutes and hours. But always there’s that glimmer of light-that way of living you once knew-sort of faded and smoky like the crescent moon on a winter’s night when the air is full of ice and clouds, but still there, hanging just over your head. You think it’s not far. Your think at any moment you can reach out and grab it.