Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Valley of Light, by Terry Kay

Terry Kay’s novel The Valley of Light (New York: Washington Square Press, 2003) is set in the fictional community of Bowerstown, in the North Carolina mountains, just north of the Georgia border. It could just as well have been set in North Georgia, near Young Harris College, where the poet Byron Herbert Reece taught English for a number of years before committing suicide (he was ill with tuberculosis). Reece plays no role in Kay’s novel, but his influence is there, in the rhythms and imagery of the prose, in how Kay draws his characters as both individuals and as emblems of something larger. Reece’s novel Better a Dinner of Herbs especially comes to mind—it describes people of the North Georgia mountains in a similar way.

The Valley of Light describes the impact on a small mountain community of an itinerant fisherman named Noah who wanders into the town, stays a few weeks, and then goes on his way. Noah has an almost magical ability to catch fish, and he uses it to make a living. Near the town lives a young woman named Eleanor who recently lost her husband to suicide—he returned traumatized from WWII and never recovered, and he brought secrets back with him as well. Eleanor lives in isolation, is a deep reader (the novel she is reading is The Grapes of Wrath—there are similarities between the prose style of that book and Kay’s as well). Noah befriends her. He becomes friends with a store owner, Boyd, who wants to woo Eleanor when she stops mourning. Noah is the unifying force, the focal point, a catalyst, in a melodrama of entanglements among these characters. Yet there’s no sensationalism here. One might expect certain developments to occur—some do and others don’t. One particular focus for the community is a fishing competition—everyone is looking forward to Noah’s taking part. There’s an attraction between Noah and Eleanor.

A bittersweet nostalgia underlies the novel, which takes place in the late 1940s. Set in the isolation of the North Carolina mountains, the novel portrays the community both as a living force and as a conglomeration of individuals. The developments of the 1950s—highway systems, easy air travel, television—all of which will bring an end to the loneliness as well as the distinctive identity of Bowerstown—loom just beyond the mountains that surround the town.

Kay’s narrative voice is powerful and dominating. It moves the story forward with skill and momentum, as if there is an inevitability to the events that occur.

Noah has what in modern times we call a learning disability. He can’t handle mathematics. He may be slightly below average in intelligence. But he thinks and feels deeply. His parents are dead, his brother is in prison, and he walks through the countryside, from one community to another. He has no sense of where he is going. Noah himself served in WWII and was present for the liberation of one of the death camps, where he saw suffering prisoners and stacks of bodies. He carries a small souvenir from the camp, fashioned by one of the inmates. Boyd served in the War as well. In a sense The Valley of Light is a recovery novel—recovery from the trauma of the War (which leads Eleanor’s husband to suicide), recovery for Eleanor from her husband’s death.

I enjoyed The Valley of Light. What most impressed me was the final chapter. It is the kind of chapter any novelist would yearn to write. It left me gasping.

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