In Another Light by Andrew Greig

in another light 2Timor mortis conturbat me…

🙂 🙂 🙂

After a narrow escape from death as a result of a cyst in his brain, Eddie Mackay is obsessed with thoughts of his own mortality. While lying semi-conscious in hospital, he is ‘visited’ by his long-dead father who seems to want to tell him something. He learns from his mother that his father once had an affair in Penang, back in the late colonial days of the 1930s, and becomes engrossed in trying to find out more about this period of his father’s life. The book takes the form of two stories running in parallel – Eddie’s recuperation from his illness in Stromness on the Orkney Islands and his father’s story as a young doctor in Penang, with the links being provided by Eddie’s slow research into his father’s life. Both strands involve the complicated love affairs of father and son.

The writing is excellent and Greig brings both very different locations to life. The contrasts between the wild, windswept cold of an Orkney winter and the tropical heat and sudden rains of Penang are vivid and beautifully described. Each society is a small, enclosed one – Orkney by virtue of its island remoteness, and Penang where the colonials remain a separate group within the wider population – and each is a place where secrets are hard to keep, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Eddie, as the main focus of the novel, is particularly well drawn as a man struggling to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic experience, and trying to find something to give his life new meaning. Sandy, the father, is a little less well developed, and indeed this is true of most of the other characters, who seem sometimes to be ‘types’ rather than people. The characters in the Penang section in particular are a little too stereotypical, as if drawn from the fiction of the era rather than from life. But the Orkney side of the story works much better, giving a completely credible picture of a small society now expanded by incomers who both conform to and yet impact on the traditions of the place.

Stromness winter by Glenn McNaughton
Stromness winter by Glenn McNaughton

So, much to praise about the book. Unfortunately, I have a total antipathy to literary fiction that, however beautifully written, doesn’t have a decent plot, and I’m afraid this falls into that category. The Penang story is about Sandy’s love affair, and we are pretty much told how that ends before it begins. The Orkney story is about middle-aged Eddie’s sex-affair (to call it a love-affair would be stretching it) with Mica, the half-crazed woman he sleeps with on an occasional basis. The strand about Eddie’s research into his father’s past is rather pointless for the most part and ends with a totally contrived and unbelievable denouement. It feels as if it only exists as an excuse to link the two stories.

Andrew Greig
Andrew Greig

The book might have worked better if it was shorter, but it drags on for 500 pages, much of which is filled with repeated descriptions of the landscape, weather and culture of the two locations. I’m afraid 500 pages of slow-moving, upmarket romance is too much for me, unless it provides some insight into the ever-nebulous ‘human condition’, and I felt this doesn’t particularly. The question of Eddie’s fear of mortality is raised many times, but insufficiently examined to provide any feeling of real depth. As always, it’s a matter of personal taste. I’m hesitant to criticise too harshly because as I’ve said there’s much to admire, and many readers I’m sure will find the parallel romances sufficient to hold their attention, especially given the interesting locations. But for me fine writing, excellent descriptions and good characterisation are only part of what makes for great literary fiction – it must also have either a strong story or a profundity to it, or preferably both, and unfortunately I didn’t find enough of either in this one.

Book 12
Book 12

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49 thoughts on “In Another Light by Andrew Greig

    • It did lead to a few unscheduled naps, I admit! And would have been deeply improved if a couple of them had got bumped off – in fact, I’d be happy to pick which ones! And the half-crazed woman would have been on that list…

  1. Well, I must admit, FictionFan, the settings – both of them – appeal to me a lot. But I confess I’m with you about the plot thing. Even beautifully-written literary fiction does not get a pass (from me anyway) without a good plot. Sorry to hear this one didn’t meet that criterion, as it did sound interesting.

    • It’s possibly my aversion to romance – especially of the middle-aged variety. I just can’t seem to care if people end up in bed with each other or not – and certainly not for 500 pages! And especially not when we’re told the outcome at the beginning of the book! Oh well! But the prose was great… 😉

  2. Well, I am probably less patient with these kinds of books than some might be. “These kinds” being books whcih are filled with little in the way of plot or narrative, and are essentially poetic descriptions of a time or place. There is certainly some value in poetic descriptions, but not usually at 500 pages, and not in a more modern novel. Of course, I am one of the few people who didn’t like “The English Patient” all that much; and that book, written by a poet, certainly had some beautifully poetic writing, just not in the service of much of a story, in my view.

    So of course I would not like this one, although indeed the novelist does undoubtedly deserve the praise you gave him for his descriptive prose. And such books are probably better than the many books which have interesting plots, but are poorly written. But I do think that some critics tend to overrate novels which are filled with poetic prose about various locales. I think that a novel is supposed to tell a story, and involve the reader in the characters’ lives. There are a number of non-fiction books which descriptively tell the readers about various places the author visited. And since those are not novels, not purporting to tell a story, one can skip around and just read the chapters on the more interesting places. 🙂

    • I didn’t read The English Patient, primarily for those reasons – it just sounded like posh romance. Not so much from the blurb, I admit, but from the reviews that were doing the round at the time. I can cope with ‘time and place’ descriptive writing if it’s revealing something new about the time and place, or if it’s being entertaining about it, but somehow this one felt… superficial. Certainly the Penang strand anyway – it felt like one of the millions of colonial costume dramas we’ve all seen over the years – lush and lovely to look at, but you know there’s someone offstage looking after the costumes and make-up… The Orkney bit felt much more real, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care whether they fell in love and lived happily ever after… or didn’t!

      I was thinking that my 3-star reviews are actually more damning that 1-stars. At least a 1-star review means the book made me actively hate it, whereas 3-stars is kinda like a shrug. I quite often look at the original reviews in the newspapers when I’ve been underwhelmed by lit-fic to see if I’ve missed something vital, and I must say the two I found for this one read pretty much as if they had shrugged too. But it is all personal taste – there are lots of 5-stars reviews for it on Amazon.

      • Well, you’re back to BigSister now! I’m deeply traumatised that you’ve moved to Windows 10 -this may be the first time ever you’ve been ahead of me in technology! Do you like it? Does it work properly?

        • This caused me to smile uncomfortably, as I am desperately clinging on to Windows 7. I am pretty sure that if I am forced to adapt to any configuration which requires touchscreen, and all those “apps” popping up, I will end up throwing my computer against the wall in frustration, rendering myself permanently off the grid. Fortunately, I have many books, and I have three CD players (two of which are still in the boxes, but which I figure could come in handy if CDs become obsolete, and people are told to put all their accumulated knowledge into some kind of strange device). I would be even now be inclined to write a book which expresses my thought that all of this “advancing” of technology, and all these updates and upgrades, are basically a massive marketing and wealth-producing scam, intended to force people to keep buying them so as not to fall behind in some fashion. But then I would have to write the book in longhand, of course, since I can’t do any of the rest of it. Maybe that is the cleverest plan ever to quell all luddite dissent!

          • Haha! I was forced onto Win 8.1 when I had to replace my laptop a few months ago – hate it! But I’m still frightened to move to 10 in case I hate it even more, or it messes up my computer. But they tell me Win 10 looks more like 7, mainly ‘cos everybody hates 8! You have to wonder why they didn’t just leave us all with 7!! I do fear there will come a time when I’m completely unable to communciate with the world – I may be the last person left alive without a smartphone. People are always saying ‘I’ll text you’ (or should that be “I’ll Txt U”?) and it gives me great pleasure to say ‘Bet you won’t, you know!’

            But don’t be too impressed by BigSister – she cheats! She gets young people to do it for her…

            • No, rest assured you will not be. I do not have a smartphone. I have a twelve-year-old phone which can only dial out, answer, and text–but for that I have to hit the keys two or three times each to get to the right letter; some here may remember that; well, I still do it. I have no wish to take any pictures on a phone, or to stand up in the middle of a concert (as half the people around me seem to do) and ruin the ambience by videotaping two or three minutes of the performance. And then I read that there are these “selfie sticks” upon which one hangs the smartphone in order to take a good selfie; apparently they have caused serious accidents on amusement park rides. And I have been told that some people walk around staring at their phones, and actually have fallen in manholes or into fountains There is now apparently an app which tells you where you are walking, and what obstacles might be in one’s path; it seems that for people who cannot escape their smartphones, this is preferable to actually raising one’s head and looking about. One could write a very good science fiction story about all of this–except that it might not be eligible in the “fiction” category.

            • HahaHA! I love the app for telling you about obstacles in your path! I was watching a girl when I was out yesterday (with my eyes – how novel!) – she was taking her dog for a walk and gazing into her smartphone fixedly as she went. The dog was running round and round her trying to get her attention but she was totally lost to the world! Bet she was looking at photos of her dog…

    • Indeed! That was pretty much how I felt – a novella perhaps, or a short novel at a stretch, but 500 pages! I’ve had real romances that didn’t last that long! 😉

  3. FF, I can always count on you to provide an interesting and honest review! For the reasons you listed, this one doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy. Five hundred pages to wade through should offer more substance for the reader; this one seems to drag. Thanks for helping me save my time, and money!

    • Aw, thanks, Debbie! 😀 Yep, I’m afraid a 500-page book has to have something more interesting in it than a fairly straightforward romance or two for me. Even when it’s as well written as this one. To be fair, the locations made it more interesting, but… not enough. I’ll see if I can come up with something more tempting soon… 😉

  4. Tough but fair. I was willing to add this to my TBR list from your first paragraph, but then dropped it by the end of your review, which is quite good considering its length! Stellar review and observations, FF.

    • Thank you! 😀 That was more or less my reaction to the book – it started so well and I thought I was in for a treat… and then it just didn’t seem to go anywhere. Well, nowhere very interesting anyway. Oh well!

  5. What an interest. It’d be more interesting if he was a wolf hunter or something like that.

    I wonder if anyone goes out on that lake, during winter. I might. Imagine how fun it’d be! Obviously, the wind was blowing in the author’s picture.

    • It would! Although wolf-hunting in Scotland might not be so interesting…

      It’s the sea! Don’t ask me which one – either the North Sea or the Atlantic. If you had a big enough telescope you could probably see straight into your house from there…

      *laughs* The wind always blows on Orkney! (I know this because he told me on every single one of those 500 pages…)

      • *laughs* Why? Just tell the hunter that there’s one out there terrifying the people. He’d look all day and night.

        The sea! Goodness. Imagine being that close. Do you suppose waves hit the houses?

        *laughing lots* See? He was brutally effected by it.

  6. I have a soft spot for Andrew Greig’s writing (and he is a fellow Scot!) but no matter how beautiful the words, or the tension tingling between them, i do also like a bit of a plot in my novels. Like Kurt Vonnegut I think “no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in their somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of real life but as ways to keep readers reading.” 🙂

    • Great quote – I think I agree with it. I definitely need something to hold my attention, however good the writing and there’s no doubt he’s a lovely writer. But I take part of the blame because I find love affairs quite dull to read about. Unless they’re tragic or part of a wider story, or say something profound about the society they’re set in… or something! But just will they/won’t they doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid.

    • Hmm… on the awful new Reader, do you mean? I’m not sure – I think your posts look the same to me. I think it depends whether you’ve ticked the ‘only show a summary’ box in your Settings. I have, ‘cos I really hate when people do that running down a thousand posts and liking them all without even visiting the blogs or reading the posts – not that it stops them, but it means if I happen to be looking at the time, I can know for sure they haven’t read my post and save myself the trouble of a return visit!

  7. Your first paragraph made me groan when it looked like this might be another book to add to the list to be read. Luckily the rest of the review changed my first impression! Your comment regarding the lack of a plot reminded me of a Georgette Heyer biography I read, as she said she didn’t always have a plot, which didn’t seem to bother her readers. Her books may have been more charming than In Another Light though.

    • How odd – I can’t think of any of her books that I felt were plotless really, unless she’s discounting the ‘falling in love’ plot. But yes, definitely more charming – at least in her books when they went to a ball it didn’t end up in a drunken brawl! A duel perhaps – which is so much more sophisticated…

      • From the biography, I think GH was very hard on herself and her writing.
        But some people definitely ended up “in their cups” prior to finding themselves in a duel. Either way, In Another Light isn’t for me. Great title though.

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