Saturday, 29 April 2017

When Light is Like Water by Molly McCloskey

Bookclub Read
216 pages


Alice, a young American on her travels, arrives in the West of Ireland with no plans and no strong attachments - except to her beloved mother, who raised her on her own. She falls in love with an Irishman, marries him, and settles down in a place whose codes she struggles to crack. And then, in the course of a single hot summer, she embarks on an affair that breaks her marriage and sets her life on a new course.

After years working in war zones around the world, and in the immediate aftermath of her mother's death, Alice finds herself back in Ireland and contemplating the forces that led her to put down roots and then tear them up again. What drew her to her husband, and what pulled her away? Was her husband strangely complicit in the affair? Was she always under surveillance by friends and neighbours who knew more than they let on? 

When Light is Like Water is at once a gripping story of passion and ambivalence and a profound meditation on the things that matter most: the definition of love, the value of family and the meaning of home.

My thoughts

“I didn’t know who I was, or what I really valued, and I began to think that I should take myself away for a spell to find out.”

Sometimes my reading makes me smile. Here I am, writing in a genre where cheating is (one of) the biggest no-no(es), totally lost in a book about cheating. J

Well, to be fair, the book isn’t a romance, in fact, I wouldn’t even call it a love story. And personally don’t have a huge issue with cheating in books, if it fits the story. I just know better than to write it. But, while there is a marriage and a subsequent affair in this book, I want to say that is not what this story is about. This is a tale of self-discovery, of growing up and finding your place in the world while making ‘mistakes’ along the way.

In many ways reading this book was a weird — confusing even — experience. I didn’t really like Alice, couldn’t connect with her, and yet there were so many emotions, thoughts and experiences that I recognised, or that touched me.

“I felt disoriented, beset by a suspicion that would from time to time revisit me: that there was more to why things happened here than I was capable of comprehending.”

And yet, as much as there were quite a few ideas, emotions, and thoughts I could find myself in, I never lost myself in the story and didn’t feel the irresistible push to keep on reading. There never really was a question as to how the book would end. There wasn’t the tension of whether or not the affair would be uncovered or even whether her marriage, or the relationship with Cauley would survive. All those facts are diverged early on in the book.

The story, and the way in which it was told had an autobiographical feel to it and I found myself constantly wondering how much, if anything, had been derived from the author’s life.

I want to say this is a self-indulgent book, but somehow sounds like a bad thing, and this story couldn’t have been anything else since it’s the story of a woman reflecting on how she arrived at the point in her life where she now finds herself. I also couldn’t escape the feeling that I wouldn’t have liked Alice very much if I had ever met her, that she would have been too selfish for me. But, I’m not sure that would be fair. As Alice says at some point in the book, she’s trying to be as honest as she can be, and since she is telling us the story of how she betrayed her perfectly good husband by having an affair, she probably wouldn’t expect us to like her anyway. In fact, I’m not convinced Alice likes herself very much. Just as I feel that for the longest time she had absolutely no idea who she was and what she wanted; from life, from herself and from those around her. I’m not entirely convinced she had it worked out by the time the book ended either.

“(…)all that arch-backed bucking and the throaty sighs, the theatrics of sex that you sometimes wonder if  you learned from the movies (…)”

This (partial) sentence made me stop and think. Initially because it is something I’ve wondered about too. How much of our reactions (during sex and during the rest of our lives) are truly our own — original? And then, when I read the sentence again, and again, I smiled, because I can’t help feeling my editor would have had at least two corrections she’d want me to make if I’d written it.

Sometimes I finish a book and know exactly how I feel about what I’ve just read. At other times I need to write my review in order to put the story and my thoughts and feelings about it into some sort of perspective. This is one of those rare occasions when even now, hours after I finished reading and having written over six hundred words about the book, I’m still not entirely sure what my opinion is. I do know that I wouldn’t have been able to not finish the book. I also know that some of the descriptions in this book took my breath away. I recognised quite a few of Alice’s thoughts; especially those about being a ‘blow-in’ — a foreigner in Ireland. I admire Molly McCloskey for having written a book with a main character who is so totally human it is at times hard to like her, never mind sympathise with her. And I do find myself wondering whether or not I missed something—the peer blurbs on the back of the book, some by authors I love and admire,are unanimously glowing.

Maybe there’s only one thing I do know for sure. On Thursday I’ll have the opportunity to hear this author talk about her book, and I can’t wait to see if that will clarify things for me.

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