A Certain Slant of Light is A Heart-Wrenchingly Beautiful Tale About Love, Language, and the Human Spirit
Title: A Certain Slant of Light
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Genre: Romance, Fantasy, Literary Fiction, YA?
A long time ago, Helen died, but her soul did not make it into Heaven. For over a century, she has existed as a ghost and a writerly muse, attaching herself from one literary figure to the next, watching their lives but never being more than a whisper in their ear. Helen’s latest haunt is an English teacher and aspiring writer named Mr. Brown. One day, as Helen stands beside him in his English class, a boy notices her.
The boy is not what he appeared. James died as a young man and also became a ghost, but very recently, he discovered he could enter an “empty” body. Possessing a high school boy named Billy gives him access to the world again and allows him to see Helen. As the two ghosts begin a whirlwind romance, Helen wonders if she, too, can enter a body and be with James. After so much time spent watching in the distance, is it possible that Helen can once again partake in life?
It has been a long time since I read a book I unabashedly loved. But that is how I felt about A Certain Slant of Light. It is sweet and romantic, full of yearnings and emotions, with beautiful prose and a genuine affection for words and literature. I loved Helen and James. I loved their old-fashioned courtship and their passionate yet somehow innocent romance. This rendered the second half of the book hard to read, as the tension started to ramp up and I became genuinely afraid of what might happen to them. But, though it took a lot of pain and struggle to get there, the ending was happy and left me as a pile of mush, basking in emotion.
At the very start I felt a little annoyed that Helen seemed to find all these great literary figures to attach herself to. Though they were never named, they were implied to be famous writers. The first, I assumed, was Emily Dickinson, but I couldn’t identify the others. This left me feeling a little dumb and left out. However, once I realized that Helen was functioning as a muse, my attitude turned around. A muse being a lonely ghost is an intriguing idea. Moreover, Helen’s genuine love and respect for the written word began to win me over. I can’t help it; I’m a writer, and I also have a soft spot for literature.
By the time Helen meets James--which happens very soon in the book--I was already attached to her. And I have to say that I liked James, too. Many love stories like to focus on the physical attributes of the lovers, which is fine but always leaves me with the uncomfortable notion that half of falling in love is having the right type of body. Helen does not have a body, yet James falls for her anyway. This endeared me to him. James and Helen’s love is pure and wholesome, a stark contrast to the wretched home life of Billy, the host body James possesses.
By the way, I should warn you that A Certain Slant of Light contains explicit language, sex, and mention of drug use, as well as some darker themes, such as suicide, abuse, religious oppression, and rape. (None of the main characters are raped, but it something that is brought up.) For as innocent as the characters are, the real world is still a messed up place. This contrast created a tension that hit me hard in the middle of the book.
(Warning: Mid-book spoilers.)
In the middle of the book, Helen takes over the body of a girl named Jenny, a girl who happens to go to the same school as Billy, the boy James inhabits. Once she has a body, Helen and James promptly and recklessly consummate their love. This is a problem. Although Helen and James were twenty-something adults when they died, they are inhabiting the bodies of teenagers. One comes from a broken family and has a history of drug-use. One comes from a stifling restrictive religious household. This, I kept thinking, is not going to end well.
I cared about these characters, and I wanted them to be together. I understood their recklessness. After being alone and having no physical bodies for decades, to finally have someone to love, to finally have sensation--it would be like a drug. At the same time, there is a reason these kids lost their souls. Can Helen and James navigate the real world? Or would that world destroy them and their love? I genuinely didn’t know, and it terrified me. I would read and stop, read and stop, not sure I wanted to find out.
Now I will acknowledge that I am particularly sensitive to the idea that “the real world” can crush a person’s soul and stomp out a genuine love. To me, there are few things more disturbing. Fortunately, Helen is made of sterner stuff than I gave her credit for. Not all her decisions are wise, but they always feel like they are hers. Although A Certain Slant of Light has its share of tragic elements--inevitable when dealing with ghosts--it is fundamentally a book about love and hope and the enlivening of the spirit.
(End of Mid-book spoilers.)
A Certain Slant of Light is one of the few ghost stories I’ve read to actually address spiritual issues. It actively wrestles with God, religion, and heaven and hell, and while there is no specific dogma (in fact, those who are overly rigid and judgmental in their religion are chastised), there is a sense of spirituality that permeates the text. I appreciate this. I want to know what the spirit is, what feeds it, and if it is in fact a separate thing from the body or if the two are intertwined. Ghost stories seem like the perfect vehicle to address these issues, yet few of them do.
One of the ways I feel that spirituality is portrayed here is through art and language. For Helen language is literally her only connection to humanity. Her voice and descriptions use words in a very precise and beautiful manner. Likewise, what first draws Helen to James is an odd turn of phrase: “I would be a friend to you.” Their flirtation takes place over an English homework assignment. Together they create art.
By contrast, environments that kill the soul use language degradingly or oppressively. One environment throws around f-bombs and threats. Here, art withers. Another tolerates only Biblical passages that emphasize sin, punishment, and obedience. Here art is brutally stomped out. The treatment of art and language is a metaphor for the treatment of the soul and shows how the spirit flourishes or dies.
A Certain Slant of Light left me feeling very inspired. It made me want to write beautifully and create emotion and explore complicated issues. It was exactly the kind of story I love to read, and I was so thrilled to be able to find it.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.