Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Reading. Maguire.

For many years I would, from time to time, come across a book among other books neatly boxed up in the basement. It was called Lights on the Lake, and I could imagine the cover as clearly in my mind as though I were holding it in my hands, although I never read it. (The title and author - Gregory Maguire - in neat calligraphy across the cover and along the spine, with a colored drawing of a black crow and a young boy flying through the night sky, over a town with a lake in the distance). The dust-jacket is only very slightly worn; once white, a faintly yellowed stripe borders one edge of the back. But otherwise it seems that it has never been read; the published date is 1981, and it is hardbound, so I could not have been more than two when it was purchased. There are no price stickers, no inscriptions inside (unlike the copies of My First Book About Computers and My First Book About Basic, which have, in neat blue writing, 塏如, Merry X'mas 1986 written on the fly-leaf. Why anyone would give a six-year-old books about computers and their language remains a mystery to me).

I doubt my parents would remember why they chose Lights on the Lake for me, or how indeed they chose any of the every-growing pile of books they bought me (many of them with my name written on the cover, or inside, in my mother's narrow, loopy handwriting). I owe much of my love for literature to my parents and all the books they bought me until I was old enough to choose my own. Years passed, and much later Gregory Maguire became rather well-known for Wicked (which then became a hit musical), and subsequent similarly-themed novels. I never read them, either, but his name remained at the back of my mind. And then quite suddenly I found myself in a new home, with space to spread out my belongings, organize my books in new ways, unlike the reckless hodge-podge of before. But it was not until we returned to our old home for its final purge that Lights on the Lake emerged from the darkness of the basement to land on my bedroom bookshelf, like sunken treasure lifted by some mysterious current that pulls it to shore, floating above all the flotsam and jetsam of previous lives.

The twelve-year-old Daniel has just said good-bye to his friend Father August, and he is still hanging around the Myer House rectory when a young man is left by his sister, pale and thin and listless, on the front porch. The man is Nikos Griskas, a young poet who is haunted by the death of his friend during a camping trip a month before; locked in his grief he seems to be slipping from life with each passing day. He seems to live - if you could call it living - with his eyes open but not seeing, like a sleepwalker, seeing his dead friend everywhere, unable to live because he believes that everything comes to death, that the world is only...a reminder...that time rolls on like a monster, eating everything up, swallowing everything up with its bleeding mouth, and we get swallowed up too...Even a feather, even a bird's feather comes shimmering with beauty deserving of salvation, and of salvation there is none. It all comes down to dying. Locked in his despair Nikos is slowly dying, and Daniel is the only one who can save him, who can bring him to the kind of peace and forgiveness he needs, to banish the ghosts, the reminder that he wanted that camping trip that ended with his friend's death. His agony is almost unbearable to read, because we have all experienced that feeling, that belief that if we had not done one thing, not made a suggestion, or a choice, or if we had done something differently, that we could have changed something terrible. As in life, Nikos cannot go back in time, cannot bring his friend back, but he can forgive himself, as we all can, and live.

Maguire, Gregory. Lights on the Lake. Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1981. p. 108.

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