The political and social state of the world in 2020 is such that it is tempting to retreat into books. That would be the approach of Gail Hightower, a character in William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light In August. He is a former Church minister, forced to resign after the upstanding people of Jefferson Mississippi found out that his wife was an adulterer and had committed suicide. He retreats from the 1930s American South into monastic seclusion, where he tries to find consolation in books.
From the stand-point of wishing to find consolation, reading Light In August can be a demoralising experience. Unpleasant as the world might be, retreat is not presented as an attractive option – Hightower’s house is oppressive, seedy and lonely. But if you do venture outside the four walls, then you face, on the one hand, criminals who care for nothing but themselves, or upstanding folks who are just as bad, since they have gained their position on the basis of a skewed set of values. The police, for example… If you ever wanted a sense of the historical background behind the Black Lives Matter movement, then this book is required reading.
Neither cutting yourself off, nor getting involved, are presented as the answer – which seems to leave a reader without much scope for finding something hopeful. However, by the end I did feel that there was some comfort to be had in this harsh book. It lies with a character called Lena, a sweet, trusting young woman who, whilst in a state of advanced pregnancy, travels on foot across the South in search of her child’s father. The father promised that he was only leaving to find work and would send for Lena once he had set up a nice home for her. Lena is ridiculously naive in believing that her boyfriend’s letter must have got lost in the post, and he is out there somewhere choosing soft furnishings and curtains. She goes looking for him, putting herself in an extremely hazardous position. But even though she has no idea where she might eat or sleep next, help materialises from people wherever she goes, even from people who despise her. Lena gets by, her faith in people seemingly abused, while it is also repaid.
Light in August is not the easiest of reads. There is a lot of chopping and changing of viewpoint, with some characters only introduced to tell a part of the story, which can feel forced. I also found sections of various interior monologues hard work. But I admired Light In August for its modern-feeling exploration of race, religion and morality; and for its own clear eyed, unsentimental sense that things will work out.