A starred review. Reviewed by Maureen Garvie
Most first-time novelists strain for the gold ring; Joan Thomas grabs it effortlessly in this wonderful book. Undoubtedly her years of editing, reviewing, and writing about other writers’ work in The Globe and Mail and elsewhere – winning the National Magazine Award in the process – have helped hone her skills.
Reading by Lightning begins in Lancashire and rural Manitoba in the early years of the twentieth century. William Piper has reluctantly emigrated to Canada as part of a shady scheme that lines its Christian leaders’ pockets. Since then, he has hung on by dint of endless, soul-winnowing labour, yet he manages to send his 16-year-old daughter Lily to England, ostensibly to assist her widowed grandmother but in actuality as a way of removing her from the clutches of her evangelical mother.
Lily blossoms in England, finding warmth and easy affection. George, her autodidact cousin (“a brain on a stick,” his father growls), opens the world to her, and the two become “great pals.” But Lily is compelled to make them more – an impulse fuelled by hormones but doomed by history. The Second World War revs up, and George, desperate for experience, submits himself to the machine.
As George is drawn into the war, Lily is recalled to the farm in Canada to care for her ailing mother. Grieving and resentful, she finds herself back in a domestic trap of emotional and sensory deprivation. There is a risk that the novel could get stuck there too, but fortunately Thomas provides a surprising plot twist to keep the narrative moving. Although the war is far from over, Thomas’s final extraordinary scene leaves the reader with a sense of possibility and a faith in the future.
Thomas’s finely nuanced sensibility variously evokes Austen, Alice Munro, and Richard B. Wright. She captures verbal intonations as if she has overheard them, and conjures characters so vividly that we can almost reach out and touch them. A remarkable debut.