After reading the last page of this touching and tragic story, I view the wonderfully perfect cover as particularly poignant. Two small boys, hand in hand…
But let me tell you a bit about the story. First we meet Gabriel, a boy of about nine years of age. He lives in Mortford, a tiny village in Dartmoor with his sad and bitter mother. His nickname is “Bunny-boy” because he is a harelip. A harelip with a cleft palate, back in the days before reparative surgery was the norm at infancy. Because of his deformed face, he is bullied unmercifully – in particular by a boy called Jim of Blackaton. The trips to and from school are torture for Gabriel. When one day a boy called Michael comes to his defense, he cannot believe his good fortune. A friend at last! A friend with a rich father who lives in a grand house called Oakstone. The bullying continues, but it is somehow more bearable when you have a friend. During the summer holidays, the boys become inseparable. They would meet at Hart Cross, then play on Dartmoor from dawn to dusk, having boyish adventures and letting their imagination run riot.
Gabriel’s father left his mother to go to war. When he didn’t return to her, Gabriel always thought that it was because of his deformity, that his father didn’t want a ‘freak’ for a son. This explained why his mother always seems so embittered and sad.
Then, inexplicably, Michael’s father provides the money needed for surgery to fix Gabriel’s face.
But Gabriel’s good fortune is short-lived. Back at school the bullying intensifies and now the bullies target Michael as well. They call him “Fluffy” and Gabriel is still called “Bunny-boy”, despite his healing face. Fear and anxiety are his constant companions. Then, one day, a particularly brutal act of bullying near the “Devil’s Table”, changes both their lives irrevocably.
Then, as is the way with many novels, we jump ahead to the present time. Gabriel is retiring from his position as a college professor. Only a few attend his ‘leaving do’, as he has always been “an easily forgotten and anonymous figure on the periphery of academia”. People believed that the socially awkward professor has lived only for his research, but little did they know that he had another purpose, one much more personal…
Gabriel Askew is now getting old. He has purchased Oakstone, the grand house where Michael and his parents lived all those years ago. He meets Mrs. Sarobi, an Afghani woman at his allotment, and the two become comfortable in one another’s company. He hires a cleaning woman, Doris Ludgate, who appears loud, brusque and hard, but actually has a soft center with a shared history to Gabriel. A history of cruelty and violence, and, a history of feeling alone.
“He was relieved she was not literate enough to read his face. But she caught the look in his eye and sensed that she had the upper hand.”
Then we are transported back in time to Gabriel, age thirteen, when a tragic event causes him to realize his family history, a life-altering event, his ‘coming of age’.
As the years pass, he sees Michael very infrequently.
Back again to the present, and Gabriel’s family secrets revealed. His life put under a microscope and examined. Tragic, the lot. Yet he remains strong and at the same time strangely vulnerable. These are the traits that the beautiful Mrs. Sarobi finds attractive.
This is weighty novel, not in pages, but in content. Some readers will find it not to their taste due to its verbosity and sometimes bleak subject matter. I thoroughly enjoyed it – both the writing and the story. The writing was exactly to my taste. Sentences like this peppered the book: “He dreaded this particular memory, he averted his mind from it, but, irritatingly, it followed him closely, like an unfed cat slinking between his legs.”
Haunting and disturbing at the same time, this is a beautifully rendered novel of family secrets, shame, and betrayal of the most dire kind. A book about love lost, and love withheld. Of the age old human desire to belong.
“Breaking Light” can be purchased from the following booksellers:
My favorite quotes from the book:
“It is odd how memory leaves long gaps – black holes in one’s own mind. Years and years are lost in thick folds of time and then tiny details come back with such clarity as to give one a headache.”
“He wished he could have told somebody about it, but realised also that beauty is something best enjoyed alone.”
Karin Altenberg was born in Sweden and moved to Britain to study in 1996. Her first novel, Island of Wings, was shortlisted for the Scottish book of the year award and longlisted for the Orange prize for fiction. Breaking Light, her latest novel, is published by Quercus. She lives in London.
Read an interview with the author about “Breaking Light”.