Take One Candle Light a Room by Susan Straight/Reflections

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I first met Susan Straight back in 2001, at the National Book Awards festivities. She was there because her novel, Highwire Moon, had been nominated for fiction the same year Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was put into the mix.  I was there chairing the Young People Literature's jury.  We'd been writing to each other and talking on the phone, but Susan's southern California and I'm Philadelphia, and it took a touch of fate to bring us face to face, blue eye to green, her daughter saying hello to my son, both of us dangling fancy earrings.

Two weeks ago, Susan sent a copy of her newest book my way.  It's called Take One Candle Light a Room, and in the cracked places of these past few nights, I've been reading.  The book is complex, and alive.  It sounds just like Susan (patois and poetry), and if you want to see Los Angeles through the eyes of a "walkin fool," if you want to try to imagine how the legacy of slavery passes down through the prickled blood, if you want to root for a boy who can write poems and dream big but nonetheless finds himself a gun-toting refugee from the law, let Take One Candle take you there.

Susan's heroine is a southern California, light-skinned travel writer named Fantine Antoine.  She's not married, she's not settled, she goes from place to place to see.  But there's somebody she does love hard, somebody who has power over her, and that's this poem-writing 22-year-old boy named Victor, the son of her murdered best friend.  When Victor gets in trouble with the law, Fantine Antoine runs after him, toward Louisiana, which takes her, in so many ways, running the long way home. This is a violent story, but there's also love in it—love for places, love for language, love for this boy, who has a talent with words.  Here, for example, is what Victor can do on a page:

The Villas—#24—The Balcony
What you don't understand
The snarling jeweled nightbird can be
Even when it wakes you up at two
flying in circles
A silver rope a silver beam tied down? tethered anchored
No escape for the pilot
Caroline Leavitt, whose CarolineLeavitville blog is essential reading for writers, interviewed Susan recently.  I loved reading what both had to say.


Lilian Nattel said...

It sounds like a gripping book, Beth.

Wendy said...

I recently received this book for review - and if I didn't have several other books in the queue which I have given commitments to read sooner rather than later...I would pick up this book tonight and read it based on your reflections of it! It sounds like just the kind of writing I love.

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