Book Review: 'A Certain Slant of Light' by Laura Whitcomb

(Anthony Russo)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Sunday, December 18, 2005


By Laura Whitcomb

Graphia/Houghton Mifflin. 282 pp. Paperback, $8.99

Dead is the new pink. The formerly living occupy a huge amount of creative space these days -- in television ("Ghost Whisperer," "Medium"), film ("Corpse Bride," "Just Like Heaven"), novels like Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones , even a highly regarded show of spirit photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ghosts are traditionally scary, but many of these eldritch forms are hauntings of a kinder, gentler sort. Even the most hard-nosed unbelievers, it seems, can derive a peculiar comfort from the notion that we're rubbing elbows with the otherworld -- think of Mexico's Da de los Muertos, when families honor deceased loved ones by picnicking on their graves.

A Certain Slant of Light , Laura Whitcomb's lyrical and utterly compelling first young adult novel, features two ghostly young protagonists who become lovers -- yes, in the flesh, though it takes a bit of work for them to get there. We first encounter the novel's narrator, Helen, in a contemporary high school classroom where she is shadowing her host, an English teacher named Mr. Brown. Helen has been dead for more than 130 years. She is one of the Light (ghosts) who move among those of us who are still Quick (alive). The precise details of her death are a mystery, carefully doled out during the course of the book, and while there is an unavoidable melancholy to these accounts, there's nothing morbid or gross. The aftermath of death here, as in real life, is mostly loneliness, grief and confusion -- "I could remember my name, my age, that I was a woman, but death swallowed the rest."

Helen's first host was a poet. Helen refers to her as "my Saint," but readers will recognize Emily Dickinson (whose work gives Whitcomb's book its title). After her Saint's death, Helen's literary tastes were sated by other hosts: first a writer, then a playwright, a poet and finally a novelist manqu -- Mr. Brown. Despite her great affection for them, Helen has very limited impact upon her hosts or their surroundings.

"When you are Light," Whitcomb explains, "it is only your emotions that can send a ripple into the tangible world. A flash of frustration when your host closes a novel he is reading too soon might stir his hair and cause him to check the window for a draft. A sigh of mourning at the beauty of a rose you cannot smell might startle a bee away. Or a silent laugh at a misused word might cause a student's arm to prickle with an inexplicable chill." It is in Mr. Brown's English class that Helen has the sudden frightening realization that she has been actually been seen , by a teenage boy named Billy -- only it's not Billy who sees her at all, but the animating spirit inside him, that of a young man named James.

Billy, it seems, was a junkie who suffered a near-fatal overdose; as his spirit left his body, the intrepid James stepped in and has been occupying him ever since.

In the hands of a less accomplished writer, this possession could have been merely horrific or even farcical. Instead, Whitcomb spins a moving tale of loss and redemption that is also a page-turner. James is intelligent, a good student, stable, responsible and remorseful for the mistakes he made in his earlier life. But the foul-mouthed Billy was none of these, and James has to be careful that his host's newfound sobriety and studiousness don't blow his cover. (Among other things, Billy's older brother, the hard-living but decent Mitch, thinks that Billy is showing signs of mental illness.)

Whitcomb invokes numerous literary precedents, all works that the bookish Helen loves -- Jane Eyre, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland , Emily Dickinson's poetry, A Christmas Carol , "Romeo and Juliet." But the pangs of romantic obsession are nothing compared to those suffered by James and his incorporeal beloved, who want to experience the real thing. James explains to Helen how she can cleave to a living host and accompanies her to a mall to find an appropriate one. Her first attempt almost destroys Helen, as she unwittingly enters the mind of a deranged woman. But her next effort is successful: She attaches herself to Jenny, a pretty, emotionally damaged 15-year-old whose disassociative state has been caused by her religiously conservative and controlling parents.

Jenny attends the same school as Billy, and Whitcomb's narrative soars at breakneck speed as the two teenagers become lovers and soulmates, defying family members in their seemingly doomed struggle to remain together. The stakes are raised even higher when Jenny's parents decide to pull their daughter from high school and send her someplace where her creative drive will be crushed, thus dooming Jenny and sentencing Helen to the spiritual equivalent of a second death.

Whitcomb juggles numerous narrative and thematic devices with astonishing skill, all the more remarkable in a first-time novelist: first love and grown-up grief; the stirrings of sexual passion after an incalculable loss; blame, betrayal and forgiveness; the power of art to redeem even those who seem irrevocably damaged.

A Certain Slant of Light is marketed as a young adult novel, but its themes and its language are unapologetically grown-up. By the end of the book, Whitcomb's star-crossed lovers are confronting the moral repercussions of their passion. Can James and Helen restore Billy and Jenny to their rightful bodies, giving them each another chance at life, while retaining their own abiding love for each other? I held my breath, hoping that this wonderful new novelist could pull it off. She did, which only made me want to read this haunting book all over again to see exactly how.

Elizabeth Hand recently completed her eighth novel, "Generation Loss."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company