Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas, published by Goose Lane Editions, made its way into my mailbox from Mini Book Expo. It’s a coming of age novel at a time that the world is on the brink of World War II, particularly in England.
It took me a long while to get into this book, more than 100 pages, which was disheartening. In Book One readers will wander through Lily Piper’s musings and her interactions or lack thereof with her parents. The wavering narrative and tangents of Lily drag on for long stretches, and readers may have a hard time following along. Her relationship with her mother is cantankerous at times and Lily is often portrayed as a wayward child led by the sin in her heart. There are a number of instances where Lily wanders off with boys alone, which in many ways should ruin her reputation.
“Wonderful for your maidenly inhibitions (going to hand me the flask and then reaching around me to unscrew it himself and in the process circling me with both arms). The way we tussled around and he pressed the mouth of the flask to my mouth and I resisted or pretended to resist, whiskey meanwhile sliding hotly in through my lips and dribbling down my chin and onto my bathing suit.” (Page 88)
Her relationship with her father is more of silent understanding, but again this relationship is not something a girl can cling to when she needs reassurance or strength. Lily’s interactions with her brother are few and not enlightening at all, revealing little of her character or his. Through side stories and discussions about her father’s immigration to Canada and the Barr Colony, Lily learns about her father’s journey, how it came to pass, and the secret illness that prohibits him from leading a normal life.
In Book Two, Lily is sent to England to take care of her grandmother, her father’s mother, and this is where the novel picks up in pace and Lily grows into an adolescent and falls in love with her cousin George. Thomas’ writing is detailed and poignant from this point on in the novel and had me riveted.
“But tears would begin to course down her [Lily’s grandmother’s] cheeks, which already looked like the leaves of a book damaged by rain. So I would sit with her, because I’d nothing else to do. I’d want to ask about my father, and at first I did. Oh, he was a lovely lad, she’d say vaguely and start to tell me about him crawling through a hole in the wall into the next house, and then she’d get confused as to whether that was Willie or Hugh or Roland, or even her own little brother when she was a girl.” (Page 140)
There are passages in these sections that offer suspense and insight into Lily and what she is seeking to learn from her relatives and about herself. However, death seems to follow Lily on her journey and lead her back home to Canada in Book Three.
The truest moments in the novel are when the air raid sirens sound and the women and children board themselves up in shelters or in their homes in preparation for war with Germany and when the bombs are falling outside and they huddle in the dark living room comforting one another with stories of the mundane. These scenes are well crafted and tangible for readers, transporting them to another era. Once back in Canada, Lily succumbs to her previous manner in the home of her mother, but the letters from her cousins abroad continue to bring the reality of war home.
I read this novel as part of the War Through the Generations: WWII Reading Challenge. This is my first completed book for the challenge. I’ve been a bit slow.
Joan Thomas has been a regular book reviewer for the Globe and Mail for more than a decade. Her essays, stories, and articles have been published in numerous journals and magazines including Prairie Fire, Books in Canada, and the Winnipeg Free Press. She has won a National Magazine Award, co-edited Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Fiction on the Eve of the Millennium, and has served on the editorial boards of Turnstone Press and Prairie Fire Magazine. She lives in Winnipeg.
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Diary of an Eccentric
This giveaway will be international. I have one gently used ARC copy of this book available.
Leave a comment on this post and randomizer.org will select the winner.
Deadline is March 20 at Midnight EST.
I have two copies up for grabs of Sharon Lathan’s Mr. & Mrs. Darcy: Two Shall Become One; the giveaway is international and the deadline is March 14 at Midnight EST.
I also have two copies of Diana Raab‘s My Muse Undresses Me and one copy of Dear Anaïs: My Life in Poems for You. Deadline is March 18 at 5PM EST.