Sunday, 26 August 2018

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly

The back cover of this book promised an interesting story. It reads:

”Based on a real murder at the turn of the century, this outstanding debut novel is a powerful and moving coming-of-age book. Mattie is torn between her familial responsibilities, her desire to be a writer, and the excitement of a first romance. Her dilemmas and choices are quietly reflected in the life of a young woman found drowned in a lake, a woman that Mattie only gets to know through reading her letters.”

The first chapter starts with the murder, which gets you right into the story. However, then you are taken back to Matties life leading up to her being at the hotel where the murder took place. From there the story goes back and forth, with a chapter here and there on the murder perspective. In the beginning I wanted to know more about the murder, rather than the background of Matties life. It took me more or less 100 pages before I settled into the rytm of the story and realising that the majority of it took place before the murder.

Once settled into the structure it is an amazing book. Mattie´s story is, I think, quite a common one, and describes very well the hard life for the farmers in the North Woods, and most likely in other areas as well, at the beginning of the 20th century.. It is told with a sensitivity and simpleness which hit you like a stone. There is no getting away from the good and bad things happening. Although life is hard for both men and women, it is difficult for the persons who want another life.

”I used to wonder what would happen if characters in books could change their fates.What if the Dashwood sisters had had money? Maybe Elinor would have gone traveling and left Mr. Ferrars dithering in the drawing room. What if Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale had gotten onboard that ship and left Roger Chillingworth far behind? I felt sorry for these characters sometimes, seeing as they couldn´t ever break out of their stories, but than again, if they could have talked to me, they´d likely have told me to stuff all my pity and condescension, for neither could I.”

True enough. How much does it take to break away from your destiny? Mattie has a dream of becoming a writer in a community where people hardly can read and write. Every day is a fight for survival. Is the only future forward to marry and get children?  Mattie gets help from an understanding teacher (and there is a little bit of a twist here!). When she finally gets the approval of her father to go and work at a nearby hotel, she is happy to get away from her surroundings and meeting a whole new set of people. However, the family and village connection is very strong. 

”I have read almost a hundred of Emily´s poems and memorized ten. Miss Wilcox says she wrote nearly eighteen hundred. I looked at my friend Minnie, sleeping still. A year ago she was a girl, like me, and we were in my mamma´s kitchen giggling and fooling and throwing apple peels over our shoulders to see if they´d make the initial of our true loves. I couldn´t eve see that girl anymore. She was gone. And I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn´t have written even one poem if she´d had two howling babies, a husband bent on jamming another one into her, a house to run, a garden to tend, three cows to milk, twenty chickens to feed, and four hired hands to cook for.”

At the hotel she serves at a table with a young couple in love. The girl gives her a set of letters to burn, before she is going out for the day with her fiancee, as she hopes, to get married at a nearby chapel. When the girl is found drowned and no sign of the man is found, Mattie realises that the letters might keep information. 

This is more than just a murder case, which is based on a real one, where Donnelly has made her own story of what might have happened. It is also a coming of age story of a woman who wanted much more, or at least a different kind of life. It is very gripping and it is not until the very end you will find out what Mattie is choosing for her future life. For me, the beginning was not what I expected and normally I don´t give a book the chance of reading 100 pages before quitting. It is not that the beginning is bad, I was just set for another story. I am very happy I endured to read this totally captivating story of Mattie and her life during a short period. 

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