Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield
Being Light by Helen Smith
Tyger Books 2010
First published by Orion 2000
Price: E-book—(AUD) $0.99 Paperback—$11.04 (Amazon prices)
As Roy Travers is helping to erect a bouncy castle in a south London park one windy April day, a particularly strong gust lifts the castle and Roy into the sky and he sails away never to be seen again. Almost. Roy does land eventually and finds himself in Paradise in the presence of an angel—Sylvia—who has absconded to the Kent countryside after stealing a case of cash and an elephant. Thinking he’s dead, Roy settles down to a peaceful afterlife.
When I first read the premise for this story I was immediately reminded of a quirky little Aussie film written by Jeff Balsmeyer and starring Miranda Otto, among others: Danny Deckchair in which a bloke ties a bunch of balloons to his chair and floats away into a new life and a new love. Like Danny, Roy is also on a journey of self-discovery. There’s something evocative in the idea that a body can be plucked from a mundane existence, deposited elsewhere and presented with a whole new realm of experience. It’s the ultimate do-over. Also like the abovementioned movie, Being Light’s light heartedness masks deeper issues, and it’s this polarity that makes both stories work.
While Roy is mooning about in Paradise with Sylvia, his wife, Sheila, is getting crazier by the day with worry. She knows that Roy would return to her if he could, and as he hasn’t the reason must be that he is being held captive. It’s a surprisingly short leap from there to her ultimate conclusion whereby Roy has been abducted by aliens. Before long Sheila is receiving messages via her dangly earrings and aluminium foil earmuffs. Realising she can’t find Roy on her own, she hires detective Alison and joins an ET support group.
Alison, who starred in Smith’s first novel, Alison Wonderland, shares her home with baby Phoebe—a child she found on a beach—and basement-dweller, Harvey. Still pining for lost love, Jeff, the highlight of Alison’s day is a delivery from the psychic postman. (How and why this man is psychic isn’t clear.) Alison works for ardent animal liberationist, Mrs Fitzgerald, who is investigating animal trainer, Venitia Latimer, who it transpires owned the elephant and cash that Sylvia pinched.
A more apt title for this story would be: Three Degrees of Separation, as each character is connected to the next by no more than three steps. It’s a concept Smith demonstrates extremely well. Told through alternating viewpoints—which tend to bounce back and forth a little too epileptically at times—readers are shown glimpses into the lives of perhaps a dozen players who are all linked in some way to Roy Travers. From Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation head, Ella Fitzgerald, who scours London for signs of madness, to the decidedly triangular Miss Lester who dreams of operating the most successful dating agency in Britain, each cast member is incredibly detailed and could easily star in his or her own show. As the story—or rather, series of stories—draws to a close, all these threads are pulled together to make one neat rope, producing a comforting sense of symmetry as the final act is played out.
Without a doubt, Smith is a master storyteller. A novel with this jig-saw structure couldn’t possibly work without skill. To make such absurdities as fly-away castles and alien abductions so utterly believable is a testament to Smith’s talent. In less experienced hands this story would have been a farce.
While the novel begins and ends with Roy, he is really only the catalyst for other more poignant characters and their lives. One such character, Sheila, shows us the meaning of love and literally leaves no stone unturned in the hunt for her husband. And Mrs Fitzgerald who sees silver where everyone else sees gold, and whose need to end suffering could very well send her mad—something she fears above all else. And then there’s Sylvia’s brother, Jeremy, a tragic soul who is determined to stop traffic and thus save the world, even if it kills him.
With its humour, complex cast of characters and themes of love, loss and the search for meaning, Being Light is a story that resonates on many levels. It is the sort of story that can be read more than once and with each reading something new will be gleaned. Smith is a writer to watch.
About the reviewer: Jenny Mounfield is the author of a three published novels for children, her most recent being, The Ice-cream Man (Ford Street Publishing www.fordstreetpublishing.com) as well as a number of short stories for both children and adults published in print and online. She has reviewed children’s fiction for e-zine, Buzz Words since 2006 and has recently completed her first novel for adults. She lives in south-east Queensland Australia with her husband and three teenage children.