Note: I received a copy of this book from Bloomsbury USA (via Netgalley) for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review in any way.
A Slant of Light is a novel about the aftershocks of violence—but not, perhaps, the violence that you’d expect, given that it’s set in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. The gruesome double killing that opens Jeffrey Lent’s latest novel is an act of domestic violence. It is also the tragic explosion of resentments (and injustices) that have been festering for years. So perhaps, in that respect, Lent’s novel is as apt a depiction as any of the wreckage left behind in the wake of a cataclysmic civil war.
In fact, it is difficult to read A Slant of Light as anything but allegory when it contains sentences like this one: “Later he’d say he couldn’t remember what happened next, as if he were back in the worst of the war but in fact he recalled every moment of it. Much like the war itself.” The event that Malcolm Hopeton can’t remember is the murder of his wife Bethany’s lover, as well as the accidental killing of Bethany herself. Hopeton—a farmer turned soldier from upstate New York—returns to his home after the war to find that his wife and farmhand have stripped the farm of all its wealth and then run off together. Hopeton confronts and kills the couple, but it becomes clear in the days following his arrest that his intent was to avenge Bethany rather than to avenge himself on her. Bethany, it emerges, was a wronged woman—wronged first by her father, who saw in her first adolescent sexual stirrings a sign of absolute depravity, and then by the farmhand Amos Wheeler, who coerced her into an abusive relationship.
Interwoven with Hopeton’s story are two others—August Swartout’s, and Harlan Davis’s—and if the novel as a whole is likely to be read allegorically, these characters are likely to be placed in similarly clear-cut literary niches. Swartout, who lost his wife to childbirth years before the novel opens, is Hopeton’s foil—calm where Hopeton is hotheaded, spiritual where Hopeton is earthly. Harlan Davis—a teenage hand also working Hopeton’s farm—is poised somewhere in between them. Injured during the attack, Harlan is taken in by Swartout and begins to speak out about what happened on Hopeton’s farm while Hopeton himself was away. Hopeton, though, has no wish to be spared in the wake of his wife’s death, and he resists the self-serving efforts of the lawyer Enoch Stone to prove his innocence.
All this, though, seems to suggest that A Slant of Light is a much tighter, architectural novel than it in fact is. Despite the juxtaposition of Swartout and Hopeton, despite the obvious parallels one can draw between homegrown war and homegrown violence, a certain vagueness lingers around the book. One-to-one correspondences certainly exist, but they tend to fade into the background.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Lent handles the Hopeton storyline with particular deftness, allowing the war to haunt it in ways that are effectively ambiguous. Take the following description of Hopeton’s homecoming:
[He had] many reasons to hold tight his vision of his home, steady and strong. Intact and merely awaiting his return.
Then he walked back in, his brain thick and red-rimmed with the vestiges of his years away but also with the traitorous, foul killing of the president. That great man undone by desperate fools. The war done but most clearly not done. And so he walked back into his own promise of peace, hope, and desire. And none of any of it was there. Stolen and swept away. His own life assassinated.
Things fell apart.
The blood from her nose and mouth where she lay cast upon the ground. By his own hands.
What exactly is the origin of the violence Lent describes? Is it something Hopeton—with his “red-rimmed” brain and anger over Lincoln’s assassination—carries home from the war, or had it existed within his home all along? These are the kinds of passages that make the allegorical reading of the novel not so much inaccurate as incomplete. Certainly, there is a correspondence between what Hopeton encounters at war and at home, but the war itself is positioned as both cause and effect in a cycle of violence.
Further underscoring this ambiguity is Lent’s language itself, which casts a pleasantly hazy veil over much of what happens in the novel. On the face of it, this is perhaps odd. A Slant of Light delights in what is earthy, heavy, and carnal. Even the devout August takes pleasure in the physicality of his premarital trysts with his wife:
He loved her so, and always had. And she loved him, both knowing they were intended for each other by Providence even before the summer they were eleven and were down in the gully between the farms belonging to their brother fathers, grown weary of filling baskets with the wild blackcap raspberries they’d been sent after, and so were on hands and knees making tunnels through the canes, close to the earth so most thorns and the spread of leaves and fruit were above them when they met face to face. Lips, cheeks and chins smeared with juice and she leaned the final inch and kissed him, then both pulled back and studied each other until he pressed forward and kissed her back. They did this for a while and never really stopped, only paused…Until the September afternoon both were fourteen and walking home from the dame school of their people and hand in hand veered wordless from the road where it crossed the Kedron Brook, down among the high sycamores where the mottled trunks reared against the clear cloudless sky, the ground littered with shards of shed bark and yellow leaves, the yellow leaves overhead making a glowing golden world where after kissing she’d unbuttoned his trousers and tugged them down before lifting her dress and pulling off her knickers, then pulling him down and fumbling him into her with her hand. They lay clenched, newly made, mouths hungry.
Notwithstanding the spiritual rebirth implied by that last sentence, there is a way in which passages like this one foreground physical experience—the taste of food, the feeling of sex—in such a way that all of the symbolic connections the novel establishes begin to feel remote.
All that said, the novel’s two major weaknesses arise from this same kind of indeterminacy. The first is Lent’s tendency to linger just a moment too long on these pastoral scenes. Lovely as his prose is, it cannot ultimately substitute entirely for action, and the novel unfortunately begins to drag a bit somewhere around the midway point.
The second weakness is perhaps not a weakness at all, but it merits comment nonetheless. If the Civil War itself is a curious lacuna in the novel, the virtual absence of references to slavery is even more striking. Lent has written about slavery in the past, so it might be unfair to read this absence in terms of the “invisibility” of blackness in much American literature. I do, however, think that the absence likely says something about the world that exists within the bounds of Lent’s novel.
Just what it does say, though, is a question I’m not currently prepared to answer. A Slant of Light is a haunting novel, and like most haunting novels, it leaves you grappling with its meaning long after you’ve finished reading.
A Slant of Light will be published on April 7, 2015 by Bloomsbury USA.
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