When you think about it, the business of living boils down to a string of decisions; seemingly insignificant decisions about little things, largely, like whether to take the left road or the right. Maybe one direction gets you to your destination without delay on this postulated day, and perhaps that matters, but taking the long way could lead, equally, to a chance meeting that leads to laughter that leads, at the last, to love.
What I mean to say is that, in a very real way, we’re changed by our choices—made or broken or both. Take Tremain Pearce, the deeply damaged protagonist of Natasha Carthew’s languid but ultimately uplifting latest. When a man murders his mother and father, and hurts his big brother Billy so seriously that he’ll require round-the-clock care for the remainder of his days, Trey chooses to make the guy who got away with it pay: a decision that determines the lot of his lamentable life from that sickening instant on.
His short life, sketched and drawn wrong since memory began, had been rubbed down to this one moment in time; he was sitting at the brink of a place where there was no turning back and he was ready to jump. For Mum and Dad and Billy he was ready to leap into the unknown and all he knew of that unknown was it had one single solitary name and the name was revenge.
In the name of revenge, then, Trey contrives a transfer from his foster family into the care of Camp Kernow, a faith-based prison facility which purports to teach difficult children a trade, where he has reason to believe the man who took his family from him has sought safety “in the cloth of God.”
“If he was to have any chance of finding out the truth he had to keep to the rules and gain the masters’ trust no matter that he hated them all,” but this is demonstrably easier determined than done. To wit, it isn’t long before Trey starts attracting exactly the wrong sort of attention: from DB and McKenzie, the hectoring heads of house, as well as Wilder, the biggest bully in Camp Kernow and a particular pet of Preacher, who may—or may not—be the reformed monster our kid has come to kill. Eight years on from that devastating day, how in the world would he even know?
Naively, he had thought revenge would be exacted in three easy steps: find the man, kill the man and escape. He hadn’t spend much time working out the detail of step two and three, but here he was stumped at the first.
Stumped in much the same way readers of The Light That Gets Lost are likely to find themselves at first, I’m afraid. To be sure, it’s brilliantly written, as the wonderful Winter Damage was before it, but whereas Carthew’s Carnegie Medal nominated first novel let in a little light when the time was right, the bulk of her new book is almost completely bleak.
The appalling events of the prologue turn Trey into a stone-cold central character so single-minded in his mission that there’s no room in his heart for humour or beauty, thus the kindness of strangers like Lamby—a spirited kid who bears the brunt of Wilder’s wickedness with a lopsided smile—goes nearly unnoticed for perhaps half of a narrative reminiscent in its relentlessness of Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Something in the dark claimed the boy that night. A needling hook of skulking roots that pulled him towards some other place; an underhanded, underground grasp. A little demon settling someplace deep inside, a flickerflame moving, growing in size.
Happily, The Light That Gets Lost is like a whole other novel—Lord of the Flies, in fact—from the midpoint on. Not necessarily a nicer novel, I’d note. The fiction is no funnier or finer as Trey and the friends he finally makes are forced to prepare “for something that they didn’t want to prepare for; something beyond youth and courage and reasoning” when catastrophe comes to Camp Kernow. Yet in the wake of the confrontation that Carthew’s text turns on, our protagonist’s perspective becomes markedly more measured and sympathetic, such that there looks to be something other than savagery at the end of the tunnel The Light That Gets Lost represents.
Borderline unbearable as its stark start seems, The Light That Gets Lost is redeemed by the revelations that set the emotional second section of the story in motion—rather like the initially embittered boy who comes of age over the course of the whole. And all because of a single decision…
The Light That Gets Lost is available now in the UK from Bloomsbury.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.