A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb

A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb (Boston: Graphia, 2005)

Once upon a time, I began this book. Reader, last night I finished it. 

That might not seem worthy of congratulations, but A Certain Slant of Light has plagued me for years at this point. Way back in 2010 I was tidying up my LibraryThing catalogue and started tagging as ‘tbr’ certain books that had been languishing unread for the usual reasons. Other newer books had taken my interest, some had been shelved up high and just didn’t catch my eye often enough, others had been bought for reasons I no longer fully remembered. But I was determined to cross them off a list which hadn’t even been created at that point so, with all the late-night fervour of an ardent list-maker, create it I did.

That list has been the albatross around my neck for the past four years. Almost every time I choose what book I’m going to read next, I think of all those books tagged way back in 2010 and most still unread. Sometimes I stand in front of the bookshelves looking for a serendipitous selection to make itself known to me and one of those tagged books will catch my eye and that awful guilty shiver will start low in my stomach and I’ll have to walk away and read the manual for the lawnmower instead. A number of those titles have travelled extensively, taking up precious space in hand luggage and then being ignored in favour of whatever terrible film I’d never ever watch unless you sat me in a large metal box hurtling through the air for hours on end and gave me a choice between it and one of my 2010-tbr books. (Poseidon, Prince of Persia, Battleship – I’m never getting those hours back!) Not even the heady rush that comes with crossing an item off a list has been enough to make me read these books. 

You might think that these are bad books or boring books or not-my-kind-of-book books and, if I’m never going to read them, I should just give them to someone who might. Well, that logic hasn’t prevailed with the jeans I last fit into when I was 23; it’s not going to work with these books, let me tell you! Unless I’m prevented from doing so by reasons outside my control, I will read these books and I will finish them and I will cross them off my list. Trust me, you’ll probably read all about the process here! (Also, God, hello there! Please don’t let me die before I finish these books. I solemnly swear the list is not some elaborate plan to achieve immortality. Honest. Thanks, Em)

As for A Certain Slant of Light, all it took was three, four, possibly six attempts at the opening chapter and a long delay on a flight to England over the weekend and ta da! Done and dusted! I even had a belated birthday present of some honeyed macadamia nuts in my bag to reward myself with afterwards. 

Which I needed in the end because A Certain Slant of Light is not what you’d call a cheerful read. It tells the story of Helen, a woman in her late twenties who has been dead for over a century but who, instead of moving on to an afterlife, has spent the years since her death benignly haunting a series of hosts. 

The pain, once I was dead, was very memorable. I was deep inside the cold, smothering belly of a grave when my first haunting began. I heard her voice in the darkness reading Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale.” Icy water was burning down my throat, splintering my ribs, and my ears were filled with a sound like a demon howling, but I could hear her voice and reached for her. One desperate hand burst from the flood and caught the hem of her gown. I dragged myself, hand over hand, out of the earth and quaked at her feet, clutching her skirts, weeping muddy tears. All I knew was that I had been tortured in the blackness, and then I had escaped. Perhaps I hadn’t reached the brightness of heaven, but at least I was here, in her lamplight, safe.

One day as she accompanies her current host, a high school teacher, she notices one of his students looking directly at her. Helen hasn’t been ‘seen’ by anyone since her death but Billy, the observant student, is actually being possessed, as it were, by James, another ghost-like figure. The teenage Billy had overdosed in an attempt to escape a traumatic home life and, while he survived, his despair left his body empty, allowing the adult James to inhabit it. As Helen and James fall in love, they begin to search for an empty body for Helen to occupy but their attempts to live fully have unexpected consequences for their teenage counterparts. 

A Certain Slant of Light was teacher Laura Whitcomb’s first novel and was published in 2005. I remember picking it up around that time because a number of YA discussion forums in the US had been buzzing about it. It’s certainly something a little different, but that’s as much a problem as it is an advantage. The novel suffers from uneven pacing and the writing is occasionally a little overwrought, but the main issue is that it’s not clear whose story the book is telling. The different sensibilities and experiences of the adult protagonists and their teenage hosts weaken the narrative’s conviction and an overabundance of ‘issues’ further erode its potential freshness. And while the novel busies itself with drugs, domestic violence, religious bigotry, adultery, broken families, war, teenage pregnancy, rape and suicide, it leaves unaddressed a number of less familiar questions about the nature/purpose of life/afterlife.   

Helen tells us that ‘I could remember my name, my age, that I was a woman, but death swallowed the rest.‘ Although she has figured out some of the rules of her existence, Helen is not in control of her own circumstances and has no notion of the purpose of her continued ‘life’. As I mentioned above, the disparity between Helen’s life experience and that of the teenage Jenny bothered me at times, but Helen’s sense of confusion and lack of understanding regarding her purpose in life did make her seem closer to Jenny than her history would have suggested. One character she’s also supposed to be close to is Emily Dickinson. Attentive readers may have recognised the origins of the novel’s title as a line of Dickinson’s work but the connection doesn’t end there. That ‘voice in the darkness reading Keats’ in the quote above is Dickinson herself who is the first of Helen’s hosts and for whom Helen feels a deep adoration:

She dipped at the ink and began to write:


A suitor bent upon one knee

Death asked me for my hand


I could tell by the black stains on her fingertips that, most likely, these were not the first lines she had ever written. I couldn’t tell whether I had inspired her, but I prayed that I had. If I could do some scrap of good, perhaps I would be granted entrance into heaven. All I knew was that this saint was my salvation from pain and that I would be hers until the day she died. And that’s what I called her, my Saint. She was as poised as a queen and as kind as an angel. 

I’m not an author and I am in awe of those who turn their hands to shaping narratives in that way. But I’m also an immense fan of the genius of Dickinson and can’t help but wonder if, were I in Whitcomb’s shoes, would I have accredited the protagonist of my first novel with being the source of Dickinson’s inspiration? And were I to have made that brave decision, would I have had the gumption to do it by page six?

In the end, I found myself wishing that A Certain Slant of Light was twenty pages longer. Not because I necessarily wanted the story to keep going (though a sequel, Under the Light, came out last year if that’s of interest to you), but because, disaster of disasters, I finished the book with about 20 minutes of flight time left and found myself with nothing to read except the inflight shopping brochure. Now, if only I’d had one of those 2010-tbr books…!

And what of ye? Are there long-lingering books on your shelves? What are they? And however do you motivate yourself to read them?!

One thought on “A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb

  1. LOL Em. I can relate so completely to this post! From the serendipitous selection (I have actually prayed for a sign – a luminous arrow pointing towards the ‘right’ book for my mood and time) to precious hours lost watching nonsense (yes, all three of those!) to the reading of lawnmower manuals when really there is a tbr list as long as my arm 😀 Currently I am struggling – and really this is absurd because the author is one of my favourites – through The Goldfinch. All my friends have read it and all LOVE it and yet I find myself wondering why? I return to it every few weeks, read a chapter or two, feel quite drained by all the unnecessary repetition but simultaneously thrilled by the beautiful prose and then return it to the shelf. Odd. Coincidentally I have a Whitcomb novel languishing on the shelf tbr ‘The Fetch’.

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