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October 02, 2016

Rohit Reviews: Light in August

Light in August

As I briefly observed in my review of Demons some years back, the order in which one approaches a particular author's catalog (oeuvre, for the pretentious among you) often influences one's perception of his or her individual works. And so was the case when I read William Faulkner's 1932 novel Light in August.

I was first exposed to Faulkner in high school (The Sound and the Fury), and since then, have made my way through two of his other major works—Absalom, Absalom! (for an English class in college) and As I Lay Dying (review here). In each of those instances, I recall enjoying the read but also struggling to make my way through it. The distortion of time, the dense, unpunctuated prose, and varying narratives all required tremendous focus to follow. Light in August was different.

A non-linear tale that alternates between the story of Lena Grove, a young, pregnant white woman who has been abandoned by the father of her unborn child, and Joe Christmas, a troubled man of unknown racial heritage who fits into neither white nor black society, Light in August is a compelling study of race, sex, and religious fervor in the racially segregated American South of the 1930s. But unlike the other works mentioned above, this novel was also a much easier (and therefore faster) read. The plot moves quickly, and is quite a bit more dramatic than the other books—violence, depravity, murder, and mayhem are never very far off in Light in August. Put somewhat differently, it's almost a bit like Faulkner lite: heavy on the captivating Southern Gothic themes that make Faulkner's novels so great, but light on the unstructured modernist style that often makes them so difficult.

Faulkner is known for his memorable characters, and up until reading this novel, I had always thought Quentin in Absalom, Absalom! (and, to a lesser degree, also in The Sound and the Fury) was the most memorable. And maybe that is still so after reading Light in August, but at minimum, Joe Christmas gives Quentin a run for his money in my mind. Christmas is not what one would call a hero by any means (he is at best a morally ambiguous character), but nevertheless, one cannot help but be drawn in by his plight living at the margins of society and ultimately his fate at the hands of an intolerant and violent society.

What emerges through Christmas's story (and that of many other interesting characters, including Grove) is a dark portrayal of alienation and conformity that I found to be quite relevant even today. Coming up with a rating for this novel was a bit difficult. I recall thinking when I read it that Absalom, Absalom! was an absolute tour de force, but that was almost fifteen years ago. At the same time, Light in August was such a great story, I find it hard not to give it full marks even if Absalom, Absalom! was perhaps better on the margins. I would even venture that it is my favorite of the Faulkner novels I have read so far: five stars of five.


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