Review: A Gathering Light; Jennifer Donnelly

A beautifully told story with a somewhat unsatisfying ending (4 stars)

Source- Personal Copy

Published by Bloomsbury, 2004

I read the paperback edition which is 380 pages.

After a friend recommended me the ‘Rose’ series by Jennifer Donnelly back in 2011, I just couldn’t get through them fast enough. They were wonderful historical fiction that really brought the past vividly to life. My favourite in the epic trilogy was The Tea Rose which I just adored.  When I came across her debut, A Gathering Light in a charity shop therefore, I knew I just had to read it, despite my current self-imposed book-buying ban (I’m trying to be good in the lead-up to Christmas)!

I’m so very glad I read this beautifully written novel. With its gorgeously simple prose and atmospheric settings, it is sure to appeal to fans of Anita Shreve or Hannah Kent, other authors who have also delved into writing fictionalised accounts of real-life historical murders.

Set in 1906 and inspired by true events, this novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey one summer. Whilst working at a hotel, she is given a stack of letters by Grace, one of the female guests and told to burn them—the day before the woman is found drowned. Drowned… or murdered? Mattie must decide whether or not to read Grace’s letters, or burn them as she requested. Grace’s story interplays out with her own in a tale of longing and ambition.

This beautifully written murder mystery is filled with the elegant prose and vivid descriptions that Donnelly is known for and this was a one-sitting read for me. I found myself hooked on certain elements, yet admittedly somewhat disappointed by a few others.

Character-wise, I loved the central character, Mattie (Mathilda), from whose perspective we get to witness the events play out. I empathised with her longing for a better opportunity in life, for her wanting to learn, wanting to write and her love of words. She also loves books and in their small town, the only source of a local library comes in the form of a resident’s ramshackle pickle boat. Following the loss of her mother, Mattie has to look after her younger siblings and aid her father in running the family farm, a role for which her father is reluctant to lose her from. At the turn of the century, women were still struggling to find their own voice, to escape from what was conventionally expected of them in society, and I feel the book depicts this very well.

The secondary characters too, were very well written. I found myself so frustrated with Mattie’s father, who whilst suffering his own heartache seemed to refuse to understand that his children were grieving too. I really liked Weaver, Mattie’s best friend and also Miss Wilcox, Mattie’s teacher who had such ambitions for her students. What a great role-model for them to have in a time when perhaps girls and black students weren’t encouraged to do particularly well in their education.

I really loved the setting of this novel as well. Prior to both WWI and WWII and in small-town America, you would expect the pace to be somewhat gentler, but instead we have a book filled with a lot of interesting, engaging themes, including family, racism and poverty. I appreciated the quiet setting and that the story was written about ordinary, everyday people. When a crime happens in a place where everyone knows each other, people are impacted in different ways- it felt believable, albeit poignant that a young woman’s life was unexpectedly taken.

However, I think the one negative aspect for me with regards to the book itself is that there didn’t actually seem to be very much focus on the crime itself- which was not what I had expected at all. It was as if the true-life events had been used as a springboard merely to tell Mattie’s story, which whilst fair enough, I am left questioning really what was the point in writing about Grace and her death in the first place. The author could have instead written about the fictionalised Mattie and her family and I personally would have found that to be interesting enough to hold my attention. Instead, the rest of Grace’s story is merely consigned to the author’s notes once the story ends, which I found to be a bit disappointing.

I do think there are a few Jennifer Donnelly books I still haven’t yet read. It’s safe to say that this is a mistake that will be rectified in future. If you enjoy historical fiction and accounts of true life crime, then you should really give this book a go.

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