Reviewed by Meira Cook
It is a brilliant summer day when “an early version of me,” (11) of Lily Piper, the evocatively named narrator of Joan Thomas’s novel Reading by Lightning, steps out of the general store and into the reader’s imagination. From this moment onwards her sense of quivering self-awareness never flags and it is the reader’s great good fortune to be invited into the frame, to be beckoned closer so that we might share Lily’s insights and delights, her griefs, fears, and mishaps, as she grows up and into an adult version of herself. Yet despite this early foregrounding of the “versions” of a character by which the reader might expect to encounter different or competing ideas of Lily Piper – as she is perceived by others or as she experiences herself – one of the novel’s great strengths is in the consistency and continuity of its narrator. From its opening sentence the novel belongs to Lily Piper, and the wit and precision of her “voice” nimbly shapes what follows.
A child brought up in the thrifty, parsimonious world of the drought-stricken prairies where even words are rationed and stories – stories about origins and desires – are scarce, longing becomes the currency of her parched childhood. In the course of the narrative Lily will be scooped up and carried across the sea to live with her father’s family in Lancashire, England, where in the uneasy years leading up to the Second World War she will encounter an entirely different world in which language is used with profligacy and ease, words are squandered on teasing and silly sayings and stories are retold with the familiarity of a favourite song. Reading by Lightning is the story of Lily’s coming into language as much as it is an account of her unfolding consciousness, her romantic discoveries and her preoccupation with the family drama.
“I wonder how you choose what you’re going to remember,” muses Lily early on, setting herself the existential and fictional problem that she will try to solve (13). Born in Nebo, Manitoba, where everything is made of wood and flimsily constructed and where she is haunted by a feeling of impermanence, she is beguiled by story, disarmed by narrative. Ironically, Lily soon finds that she is immune to stories that are freely offered, such as the account her mother gives her of her own birth, yet she is drawn to tales that are difficult to elicit, stories from which memory seems to be absent. Some tales, she finds, are as tough as the carcass of the hen her father works on while offering up his encounter with a lynx. Indeed it is after this rather parsimonious event that Lily addresses her own impulse to tell the story of her father’s life. “Things happen to him, but he never speaks of them. I feel a fierce longing to pry him open and see what’s inside” (39).
Laconic and spare, William Piper is a man of few words and none of them concern his past. His daughter’s fierce longing to pry him open translates into a narrative impulse; Lily sets about imagining the shape and substance of her father’s past, from his emigration from Salford, Lancashire in 1902 under the maverick direction of the Reverend Isaac Barr to his eventual settlement on a farm plot in Nebo, Manitoba. In this way Lily fills her father’s reticence with the stories she imagines, compensating for a history that has disowned her with memories that were never hers to own. In so doing, in telling the story of another, she reveals her own coming into consciousness. Deftly and unobtrusively Thomas positions Lily as a watcher, a clear-eyed wary voyeur, as in this moment early in the novel where the child waits outside for her father: “I’d sit on in the tree, above the yard, above the perilous fate that bound me to my mother. Not a child and not a small animal, just thought, a nub of heat and longing, a point of view, above being born and above dying” (50).
While Lily’s curiosity about her father’s past impels the narrative, her strangely disgruntled relationship with her mother provides a wonderful counterpart to filial affection. What Thomas describes as “the old dark ache” (282) between mother and daughter is never explained away; instead it resonates with every encounter between the two, growing darker and more achy as the novel progresses. In the end the past she recreates and the narrative she devises for her father allow Lily to inhabit an imaginative space away from the despised prairie landscape in which she lives. “I long to be sprung from the trap of who I am,” she mourns (108), and it is in this poignant yearning to free herself of the boundaries of personality that Lily Piper, like Alice Munro’s Del Jordan, grows into her adult self.
Thomas’s novel is a beautifully described and carefully detailed intersection of competing landscapes. In Nebo the river winds back and forth “like a whip being cracked” (56) and telegraph poles rise and fall across the terrain “like a drawn-out strand of music” (105) while in the country church prayers hang motionless in the dusty golden air (19). Back in England Thomas’s ear for dialogue is pitch perfect and her evocation of the little Lancashire town of Salford, and Lily’s Nana’s house with its gaudy heartbroken trinkets and treasures, is similarly beguiling. Precise, complex, and elegant, Reading by Lightning flashes with wit and insight and illuminates our understanding of what it means to be a sojourner in all the familiar places.
Méira Cook is a Winnipeg poet, fiction writer and editor.