Fatal Light by Richard Currey

Synopsis from the publisher:

A devastating portrait of war in all its horror, brutality, and mindlessness, this extraordinary novel is written in beautifully cadenced prose. A combat medic in Vietnam faces the chaos of war, set against the tranquil scenes of family life back home in small-town America. This young man’s rite of passage is traced through jungle combat to malaria-induced fever visions to the purgatory of life in military-occupied Saigon. After returning home from war to stay with his grandfather, he confronts his own shattered personal history and the mysterious human capacity for renewal.

My thoughts:

It’s not often that the words “horrifying” and “beautiful” are the two words I think best describe
a novel, but that is how I feel after reading Fatal Light. Horrifying because this is, after all, a novel about war. The kind of war where men curse, and use drugs, and find prostitutes, and kill people. Lots and lots of people. There is nothing about this war that is romanticized or glossed over. It is harsh, and brutal, and horrifying.

But also beautiful. There were moments while reading that I almost ached at the pictures Currey painted with his words.

“First look: sandbags and fog. And quiet. As if the fog itself were the carrier of silence easing among us, touching us, loving our faces.”

“Such things live together here, poetry and shotguns. Alive and well in a single body.”

“Once upon a time I had been in love with Mary Meade. Loving her was one of the things that kept me alive in a place where staying alive was hard to do, loving her resonant image, the effigy of our touch.”

This isn’t an easy novel to read. It is presented as a series of short vignettes, in mostly linear order, about the narrator’s life before, during, and shortly after his time in Vietnam. There were times I felt confused, not sure of where we were or what exactly was going on. This is a very internal novel, so while it is about war, there is not a lot of action to move the plot along – mostly we just drift with the narrator’s memory, reading what he chooses to remember. At times I almost forgot I was reading a novel – it seemed SO personal, it was like peeking into someone’s diary.

Fatal Light is, however, the kind of book that will stay with you. Its insights into the horror and mindlessness of war are powerful. This edition is a 20th anniversary reprint, being issued by Santa Fe Writers Project. This is the third book I have read from this independent publisher, and they have each been unique and engrossing. It’s director, Andrew Gifford, is a very cool guy – read more about his story here. His life could probably make quite a fascinating movie. Also, read the new intro to the book written by Richard Currey, specifically for this new edition here. He writes about his novel, “Fatal Light is a novel sheared down to the primary essentials of the story it tells and the spiritual predicament it describes, one that has no resolution, no solution, that joins the texture of a life and, as the unnamed young narrator of Fatal Light says at one point, sticks there “like a photograph on the spine.” ”

Finished: 3/4/09
Source: Santa Fe Writers Project
Rating: 6.5/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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