The Lights of Earth by Gina Berriault

For an excellent review of this work, I will send you to Kevin from Canada who recently read this book at my suggestion. I am just going to try to jot down some random thoughts about the book and, likely, will throw in some spoilers. Beware.

Last year, I had re-read two of Berriault’s novels (Afterwards and The Son) and commented on them. This year, I had planned to re-read this one too, but not quite so soon as I actually did. Reading Turn, Magic Wheel prompted me to take this down from the shelves to look for points of comparison, to remind myself of the story and the writing. Once I started, I did not want to stop.

The compulsion to finish was partly because I love Berriault’s writing and partly because I was astounded by the close parallels between this book and Powell’s. Both center on the women in a famous writer’s life. Powell borrows from the life of Hemingway, while Berriault’s famous writer (Martin) is more amorphous, just a place holder in many ways. Powell’s female lead is the ex-wife of the famous writer, while Berriault’s female lead is a soon-to-be ex-mistress. Powell’s book is broader in scope, rounding out a whole cast of characters, where Berriault focuses more intensely on the ex-mistress. The female leads’ male friends play central roles, particularly in the novels’ climaxes and denouements.

In a particularly poignant moment in Turn, Magic Wheel, Effie wishes she had had a child with Callingham, something that was hers alone. Effie watches a crippled boy from her window, imagining the sorrowful pride his mother must have when the teacher tells her the boy is slow. The mother doesn’t tell the teacher that her boy will shine one day, but because of the beautiful pictures he draws, his mother knows. The relationship between the mother and the boy is wrending, as is Effie’s yearning to have a child, even a crippled child.

Berriault gives her female lead, Ilona, a daughter to whom she does not seem close. Ilona also has a brother, Albert. Albert has some developmental disabilities and, thus, is confined to menial labor and a rather spartan existence. Ilona grew up watching out for him and, during the course of this novel, he sends Ilona a letter telling of a recent illness and a friend’s kind treatment:

Although he was happy to be tended by a friend out in the world, wasn’t it true that his sister ought to be the one tending him, just as she had protected him from what the world might do to him, the years when she had walked beside him and sat beside him on trolleys and buses, her small presence never enough to keep his fear from breaking out as a cold sweat over his face, never enough to convince him he was not at the world’s mercy.

Ilona’s longing for Martin is paralled by Albert’s brotherly longing for Ilona. She has gone out into the world and has not returned, will not return. Though he hopes so. Just as Ilona reminisces and fondles photographs of the man she loves but who has left her, Albert piteously misses his sister. When she later goes to Chicago, after he has died, she sees the room he rents, his keepsakes, and the prominent proof of his longing for her, a carboard sign posted above his cot which gives his address and a heartbreaking request that his sister be notified in an emergency. One senses it was always a bit of an emergency, that poor Albert was always in need of a sustaining phone call. He rarely received them, however.

The irony to this is that Ilona was Albert’s light and she left him. She was the distant star, the one traveling the world, the one who left him behind in the dark.

This sideline about Ilona’s brother is only one aspect of this novella. Every aspect of the work explores and amplifies the sense of longing, the feeling that one is being left while another streaks through life. Berriault has sympathy for those left behind and hopefulness too. Cynthia Ozick has written that “Berriault’s fictions never disappoint: they read like fact and leave the impress of wisdom.” The Lights of Earth certainly does not disappoint. It manages both a clenching sadness and an uplifting redemption without falling into sentimentality.

I loved it. I loved it again.

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2 Responses to The Lights of Earth by Gina Berriault

  1. Sarah says:

    A timely post. I have birthday money burning a hole in my pocket, and while half is pledged to Tove Jansson, I think I could stretch to two books.

    I am fascinated by your championing of Gina Berriault: she must be exceptionally good. Following up your links to The Son, the short story from Women in Their Beds (?) and, of course, this review, I am torn. Do you still recommend Lights of Earth as the one to read?

    [Note that I usually ask for advice to see if it corresponds with what I have already decided! But on this occasion I am genuinely unsure.]

  2. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    Thank you for asking. I have re-read Berriault’s three novels over the last year and found myself wondering the same thing: Do I still recommend The Lights of Earth as the one to read?

    I think not. Over ten years separate my first readings of the Berriault collection and my most recent re-enjoyment of them. I have definitely changed in the interim and my knowledge of literature is both deeper and broader. I do not still recommend The Lights of Earth as the one to read.

    The best entry point into Berriault is either (a) Women in Their Beds (the short stories) or (b) Afterwards. I like the novellas and, therefore, would plug for Afterwards. It is more structurally complex and, I think, more broadly accessible than The Lights of Earth.

    Of course, Afterwards may not have been on your list, in which case, of the novellas, I would next recommend The Lights of Earth. Hedge.

    I hope you enjoy her work half as much as I have.

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