Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
Winter Light by Martha Engber is a coming-of-age novel that gives us a stark reminder of the narrow line between success and failure, sorrow and joy, contentment and destruction that so many of our teenagers are forced to navigate in those dangerous and yet potentially rewarding years of high school. Fifteen-year-old Mary Donahue lives in suburban Chicago during the brutal winter of 1978-79. Mary is part of the high school clique known colloquially as the “burnouts”. She lives right at the edge of the precipice, binging on drugs, alcohol, and fast cars. Her mother died when she was just a young girl and her father buried himself in a bottle from that day forward. Her siblings, apart from her beloved brother Danny, are no use to her and the rest of her relatives also seem to be buried in their own misery and alcoholism. Smart and beautiful, Mary knows there has to be more to life than this self-destructive dive into pain and ultimately an untimely death but she has no way of knowing how to break the downward spiral her life seems to be on. In desperation, she tries to reach out across the social teenage divide and befriend a preppy girl, Kathleen. When Mary begins to see just how a “real” family is supposed to operate and that there are opportunities to be had if she is prepared to put the effort in and use her brain, she desperately wants what her new friend Kathleen has. Mary has struggled to exist almost every day of her young life and she figures it can’t be that difficult to redirect purpose and strength in a positive direction – can it?
Winter Light is one of the most powerful narratives I’ve read in a long time. Author Martha Engber perfectly captures the angst, the sense of loss, the total aimlessness, and the intense frustration at being unable to change what it is that bedevils Mary. Mary is edgy, tough, and yet infinitely vulnerable and sweet underneath the tough exterior. I found myself talking to Mary, imploring her not to go that way, not to get in the car, not to be so darn stupid. Any author that can make a reader respond so emotionally to her written words is an author of rare talent and Engber is such an author. With all the odds stacked against her, it is clear Mary has what it takes to break free but can she summon the persistence and courage to do exactly that? The plot is tight and the writing stark and real. Yes, there are times you may cringe from the words or the action but it is realistic in a way that is often sanitized and glossed over in literature. Although many of the situations in which Mary places herself or finds herself are entirely predictable, it doesn’t detract from the action-packed narrative that equally allows time for quiet reflection and insight from the main characters. Looking back at one’s own teenage years through the eyes of Mary is something this story compels and it doesn’t take much for one to reflect there but for the grace of God, go I. It is rare that a novel evokes such a visceral response in a reader as this story did in me and I can highly recommend this read.