There are two main story lines in Catching the Light, and for what seemed like the longest time I wasn’t sure if the two were ever going to meet. Which kept me powering through the book.
Cathy grows up in a small Newfoundland town, an only child. She’s quiet, reserved, and artistically talented. However, she struggles with reading and doing well in school. The kids call her “Lighthouse, with no lights on up there”. A kind neighbour offers to tutor her, and after years of hard work Cathy is dreaming about art school.
People used to ask if it was lonely living in a lighthouse. She’d always said no. But you didn’t understand lonely until you’d been the opposite. If you grew up with no sunshine, drab was normal.
This was the line between here and there. No landwash, no vague intertidal zone, no undecided. She stood at the edge, a mass of instincts and yearnings and despair, while the dawn painted itself in around her, shade by delicate shade.
In the meantime, Hutch is quite the opposite of Cathy – he’s charming, active, and has lots of friends. He loves being out on the water, and has a very bright future. However, Hutch is involved in an accident that causes him to have to re-evaluate his life.
He loved sleeping on board. The rumble and throb of the engine went right through his bones when he was lying down, although there was always that smell of diesel and fish. He was used to ocean and wind and noises, but here you were right inside them: the creaks and groans, the hissss of water being pushed aside by the hull. He could feel each climb up a wave and the slide down the other side, the surge and the pause, the bang when they hit a deeper trough. Things he hardly noticed in daytime with everything going on.
It’s hard to write about this book without giving too much away, but here are some of the reasons I loved it:
- The small-town Newfoundland setting and characters really shine through.
- I love the way the connections from home continue as the characters move on to university in Halifax. They make new connections, but there’s nothing like seeing a face from home or hearing that familiar accent.
- The younger characters are not entities of their own – they have parents, families, histories, and communities that help us to understand who they are.
- Cathy and Hutch grow and change over the years; Cathy’s confidence grows as she becomes more sure of herself and her art, while Hutch struggles with his confidence and new identity since the accident.
Ask her anything with the word art in it, and she was good to go for an hour. She’d been leaning forwards, eyes as big as they could stretch: “They say you can’t…but I wonder if…I’m dying to try…” Everything was so exciting to Cathy. Just let er at it. And she always had questions – questions you couldn’t answer, like how do you paint silence. Or air.
He staggered down the isle and thought maybe he’d stood on her knitting and there was a tug, but he felt strangled, so he didn’t look down – just had to get off that bus. And later he thought maybe he’d seen something pink by his foot as he stumbled down the steps. He staggered across the sidewalk, bumping into something or somebody he didn’t see, and he wondered after if that bus had flown off through the lights trailing pink knitting. He grabbed the top of a low railing and held on like it was the only thing stopping him from hurtling into space. Everything was spinning with a rushing noise and a gurgling, then gradually it shrank back to a kind of sobbing gasping stillness.
- Cathy’s talent for her art is vividly described. I came to see the importance of it in her life – it’s her number one priority. Without it, who would she be?
- Without it, who would she be? This question leads us to the principal dilemma of the story – the one each page has been leading up to. The author doesn’t tell us what to think, or what she believes to be the right choice – she just lets her characters act and leaves us to judge for ourselves. The decision Cathy is faced with feels agonizing. I still don’t know what I would have done.
- The ending is also left up to interpretation – the kind of ending that you know is right but you can’t help wishing there was more.
Driving in St. John’s. Jesus. Newfoundlanders would give you their kidney if you asked for it but no way they’d let you out in traffic.
There was a light shining inside her now, for sure. Maybe she glowed like Mary Pratt’s fruit. There was no room for all this happiness and some of it must have to stay outside, like haze round the moon.
A humorous story in the New Quarterly by Susan Sinnott in a fiction series called When NL Saved Canada. You can find the other stories here. (Other authors include Sharon Bala, Melissa Barbeau, and Gary Newhook)
Review of Catching the Light at About a Book: “It is quite different from anything I have read in the past, and although it took me a couple of chapters to fully get into the groove, I loved the storytelling. The way specific events and life in general slowly unravel but at the same time are breezed through works so well, and gives a somewhat nostalgic feel to the passage of time.”