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The Dying of the Light

August 10, 2018

Because I’d enjoyed a previous novel by Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife, I accepted an advance copy of his newest novel, The Dying of the Light, when it was offered to me by HarperCollins. It’s readable enough, as Goolrick is a good writer, but I have to wonder why he chose to try his hand at a modernized version of southern gothic. Dude, we’ve been there and done that, and you’re no Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Goolrick’s version of an aristocratic southern family is one that is isolated from friends or relatives—atypical right there—and dependent on northern money to preserve the family house and way of life. Pretty stereotypical there. Someone is shot for love. Gasp. The plot isn’t even as progressive as he may think it is in involving homosexual love; it’s just more explicit about it, which makes it less desperate and far less interesting.

The main character of the novel is a beautiful woman named Diana who marries to preserve her family’s fortune. Her mother’s speech to her, when she is experiencing last-minute jitters before her marriage, strikes me as a very northern speech because it’s inflated with everything the two women might be thinking instead of skimming over the surface of what they’re thinking and offering a few words to sum up. (If you don’t know what I mean, read O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.”)

The northern perspective is quite clear in some places, like the descriptions of some of the southern food: “ham biscuits, which the southerners devoured, and the Yankees eyed askance, because, as one of them said, ‘This tastes like something you’d put down on the driveway after a snowstorm.’”

The darkness at the heart of Diana’s marriage is described almost clinically: “He began to slap her during sex, sometimes leaving marks, but never where they might show when she was clothed.” There are no relatives or neighbors interfering in Diana’s business to even notice such marks, so it seems beside the point to mention that he doesn’t leave any; it’s just a surface imitation of a southern gothic trope.

There’s some interesting development of a minor character named Lucius, but he gets killed off before anything can arise from it. There are two obligatory scenes about race relations in the south, one of them a melodramatic moment in which Diana realizes that a confederate flag is offending “the black men and women” she’s invited to a picnic, and so she throws it into a fire. The black couple who have been her servants and stayed with her all her life spend the novel urging her to rest when they are older and have been working longer hours.

The author’s northern perspective becomes starkly explicit by the end of the novel, when the southern way of life is described as “a way of life built on an evil principle.” Is the purpose of this novel to symbolically torture the main character, a representative of all the people of the region where she was born? If so, well done Mr. Goolrick. Try writing what you know next time.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2018 3:51 pm

    I was so excited you were going to review GRRM’s novel, The Dying of the Light – also named After the Festival – but that’s not what this is. Too bad, because that is one of my most favorite SF novels of all time, perfect in so many ways.

    This one doesn’t sound like something I’d read at all. I heartily recommend the other.

    • August 14, 2018 9:51 am

      Hmm. I’m not a big fan of GRRM’s writing, in general, but I might try his first novel just because you think highly of it.

      • August 15, 2018 12:02 am

        It is amazing. I loved it so much from the library I bought it – in paper. It’s one of the few books going to California with me. Didn’t realize it was his first.

  2. August 13, 2018 12:55 pm

    I love an honest review. I’ve never read this author before but of course have seen his books around the library. This one sounds pretty joyless.

    • August 14, 2018 9:52 am

      His first one is better; I think he really understands the cold and the north.

  3. Pita Pratt permalink
    August 15, 2018 9:49 am

    Don’tcha just hate it when writers not of the South try to use a Southern accent?
    A definite slam in my book.
    Take care!

    • August 15, 2018 10:01 am

      I do think you might agree that as someone raised in the south who has lived for many years in the north, I have a perspective on both!

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