Des­per­a­tion un­folds like a lu­mi­nous dream

My favourite novel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kevin Ra­bal­ais

WHILE the Great Works — Anna Karen­ina or Mid­dle­march, Moby-dick or Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion — await ev­ery se­ri­ous reader of fic­tion, other ti­tles come to us by chance. There are oth­ers, still, that some­one whis­pers like a se­cret in­duc­tion.

Ne­dra Berland dis­cov­ers such a book, un­ex­pected and life-al­ter­ing, in James Sal­ter’s 1975 novel, Light Years: ‘‘ The power to change one’s life comes from a para­graph, a lone re­mark . . . The pol­ished sen­tences had ar­rived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time.

‘‘ How can we imag­ine what our lives should be with­out the il­lu­mi­na­tion of the lives of oth­ers?’’

Long ne­glected, long praised by writ­ers, Light Years is a novel of pro­fuse rich­ness. It is a cease­less sur­prise, this rene­gade book whose ‘‘ para­graphs’’ and ‘‘ lone re­marks’’ we read, reread and then ache to share with oth­ers. On the sur­face, it chron­i­cles the dis­so­lu­tion of a mar­riage.

Un­like other nov­els of Amer­i­can sub­ur­bia where ev­ery page dev­as­tates (Richard Yates’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road, say), Light Years — the story of Ne­dra (‘‘The only thing I’m afraid of are the words ‘ or­di­nary life’ ’’) and her hus­band Viri, an ar­chi­tect in his 30s who is grow­ing painfully aware that his am­bi­tions out­weigh his tal­ent — un­folds like a lu­mi­nous dream.

It opens in 1958, when Viri re­turns home in up­state New York from work in the city to dis­cover the fam­ily’s pony has es­caped. ‘‘ Her eyes are black, lus­trous, with the long, crazy lashes of a drunken woman,’’ writes Sal­ter.

Noth­ing is lost on him. The Ber­lands’ pre­co­cious daugh­ters are aged seven and five. In their house with its river view, Viri and Ne­dra in­vite friends for long and elab­o­rate din­ners. For them, ‘‘ Life is weather. Life is meals.’’

Through 305 pages and two decades, Sal­ter, ever metic­u­lous, un­veils the des­per­a­tion be­hind their fa­cade: ‘‘ There are re­ally two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, the one peo­ple be­lieve you are liv­ing, and there

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