Book Review – The Quality of Light by Christopher Kenworthy
I love reading a book for the second time, particularly if some years have passed since the first reading and the story has stayed with me in the interim, as it did with Christopher Kenworthy’s The Quality of Light. I first picked this up around five or six years ago, primarily because of the quote by one of my favourite writers, M. John Harrison, on the front (incidentally this proves that this kind of marketing can work – even on me). Kenworthy’s novel shares something with Harrison’s own work, in that it is dark, moody, well written and set in bleakest England.
In The Quality of Light, we are introduced to the world of Barrow in north England in an unspecified time, but probably the eighties or nineties. Our narrator is a young man named Marcus who works in a bookstore, although there is very little about this. The main characters are Marcus’ friend Patrick and quasi love interests Katie and Nicola. If this is a ‘love quadrangle,’ then there is little little love (or even sex) involved, and thus the novel takes on an air of frustrated removal, like magnets pulling away from one another.
This novel is also about gliding, as in a fixed wing glider. Kenworthy’s novel reminded me a little of Harrison’s Climbers in a couple of regards: firstly, in that the book charts the course of the year; and secondly, that it deals with a particular sport that trapped and often unhappy people use as a means of escape. As the weather turns bad, the gliding comes to an end, and by winter the web of dismay has closed around our main characters.
There is something odd about this book. In part it is the fact that Kenworthy introduces a fantastical aspect to his novel in startlingly realistic fashion: it transpires that Marcus and his friends are harvesters of ‘pain,’ which is found in locations where arguments have taken place or people have had something happen to them. These threads of pain are visible to certain people with the required effort, and the pain is expunged in a ritual at the flying club. Okay. There’s nothing wrong with this slightly bizarre plot device, except that I felt it was not fully integrated with the realistic aspects of the novel. In fact, I am reminded here of M. John Harrison’s short stories as published in The Ice Monkey, not all of which I enjoyed reading. This is an often incomprehensible and vaguely unpleasant read, but this is not to say that I don’t think the book is worthwhile.
On reflection, I think much of my commentary here is based on the final 50 pages of the novel, which I didn’t enjoy overly. This is a book that promises something and delivers little in the end. Marcus’ musings and his wanderings are based on a system of intuitive perception that seems to mirror my own Daoist philosophy, and as such the narrative can seem a little diffuse or aimless. I felt that the narrative lost momentum toward the end, as it became clear that none of the strange events would have a neat resolution.
And yet The Quality of Light is a haunting and often beautiful work. It has stayed in the periphery of my mind while countless other books have faded to nothing. It has not escaped my attention that Kenworthy has been or perhaps still is a fimmaker. His prose is visual and yet not especially visceral, memorable without being especially powerful. One thing I cherish about M. John Harrison’s work is his humanism, the way he draws down-and-outs so tenderly and with such care. I felt an absence of this in The Quality of Light. Perhaps it can be said that this novel is a failed attempt to communicate something, or perhaps it is fairer to say that it is about the failure to communicate, or withdrawing into incomprehensibility.
Christopher Kenworthy does not appear to have had a novel published since The Quality of Light, which was released in 2001 by Serpent’s Tail in the UK. This is a shame, because his is a peculiar and engaging talent. If this novel is not a completely successful piece of narrative, which I don’t think it is, then it is not for want of trying. I would be interested to read Kenworthy’s first novel, The Winter Inside, and his book of short stories Will You Hold Me? I am yet to find copies of either here in W.A.
Incidentally, Kenworthy, like me, has escaped from the hellish world of Barrow or somewhere similar for these milder climes. Whether he can be reclaimed as a West Australian writer remains to be seen.