We Are the Light by Matthew Quick book review

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Timely. Relevant. Ripped from the headlines. Matthew Quick’s new novel, “We Are the Light,” is all the above, with characters reeling after a mass shooting in a historic movie theater. Seventeen lives were extinguished in an instant. It’s a horror that shakes the country but breaks the citizens of Majestic, Pa., who were there that night. They are the survivors.

In this epistolary novel, the author asks, and answers, how does a person who experienced such profound loss become whole again?

Quick emerged as a novelist in 2008 with “The Silver Linings Playbook,” showing he could deftly tackle mental illness with empathy and humor. He’s been candid about his own struggles with depression and anxiety. In “We Are the Light” he plunges deeper, not focusing on the tragedy itself, or what pushes one to commit such an act, but on the trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder after the shooting.

The man at the center is Lucas Goodgame, Majestic’s high school guidance counselor. As he attempts to piece himself back together, the novel takes the form of letters from Lucas to his Jungian psychoanalyst Karl. (There is a heavy dose of Jungian jargon in this book, which means that if you’re not well-versed in those theories, you could be flicking open Google between flicking through the pages.)

Both Karl and Lucas lost their wives in the shooting, and Lucas is desperate to restart their sessions, but letter after letter is met with silence. Cheered on by his deceased wife, Darcy, who visits in angel form, spreading white feathers and much-needed wisdom, Lucas keeps writing. These letters become a sort of diary, a glimmer of hope and a testament to the healing power of art, one of the novel’s major themes.

The challenge of an epistolary book is that the format can be confining, but for such a character-driven novel, it creates intimacy instead of limitations. Lucas proves to be a skilled storyteller, and as he assumes Karl hasn’t left his house since his wife’s funeral, expands the narrative by recounting how other survivors are healing — through group therapy, political action — thus bringing the town to life. As he pulls the outside in, he slowly reveals what happened the night of the tragedy, while giving hints — he’s been banned from going near Karl’s home, he walks circles around his own house at night and, oh, he sees his wife in angel form — that he’s an unreliable narrator.

But whatever direction the plot takes, the letters are the art form most healing to Lucas.

That changes when someone pitches an orange tent in his backyard.

It turns out to be Eli Hansen, the 18-year-old brother of the shooter. He has become a pariah in town while grappling with his own guilt about not reporting his brother’s changed behavior. By coming to his grieving guidance counselor, we see that Eli is desperate for healing. The question is, can Lucas step up when he’s broken himself?

Together, they decide that to help Eli graduate from high school, they’ll create a senior project — writing and filming a monster movie. The goal: to get all survivors involved and remind Majestic of “the unifying and soothing powers of the silver screen.”

The relationship between Lucas and Eli quickly becomes the bond of the novel. It happens through conversations about traumatic childhoods, through meals, and the support of the two people who have been devoted to propping Lucas up — Jill, his wife’s best friend who has tasked herself with Lucas’s care, and Isaiah, the high school principal who offers reminders that as good men go, Lucas is at the top.

The film and the task of caring for Eli help move Lucas away from himself. Instead, he worries about “a boy who feels like a monster” and an unforgiving town “embittered by a tragedy that really has nothing to do with the boy monster in question, but on whom they projected all of their hate and shame and frustration.”

The book is dominated by caring male characters: As Lucas and Eli create the movie, more good men get involved, including the owners of the Majestic Theater who previously worked in the film industry.

With such a heavy focus on male relationships, the question arises if there’s room for strong women. While Jill has grit, she’s mostly relegated to a caregiving role. The balance of power instead comes from a lawyer, also a survivor, who throws herself into political activism. Her mantra, “We will fight. We will petition politicians. We will make order out of this chaos,” unsettles Lucas but adds a powerful female presence — sans wings.

It’s been five years since Quick’s last book, but his skill at crafting an engaging narrative around trauma is as strong as ever. When you read Quick, you don’t feel guilty if your tears are mixed with laughter. “We Are the Light” is a reminder that grief is complex and that we shouldn’t be afraid to grasp the hands stretched out to help us. As the title points out, even in the dark, there can be light.

Karin Tanabe is the author of five books, including, most recently, “A Woman of Intelligence.”

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster. 256 pp. $27.99

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