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A Slice of Life

The Fall of Light by Sarah Laing (Random House, $37.99)
Reviewed by C P Howe

FallofLightIn The Fall of Light, Sarah Laing has moved away from the more complex structure of her first novel Dead People’s Music – with its shifts in time and place – to a more straightforward approach, narrated by the main character, Rudy. Rudy is in his forties, and is an architect and a purist. Estranged from his wife Yasmin, he has an accident on his scooter and this is what kicks off a story of growing self-doubt, fall from grace and journey back to redemption.

If you’ve seen Nothing Trivial or The Insider’s Guide to Happiness on TV, it’s easy to imagine some of the shows’ characters as the cast of The Fall of Light. There are well-to-do professionals, their longstanding, charismatic but disreputable artistic friends, young alternative types, and hard-working and worthy immigrants. Typical urban New Zealand? Yes, for a certain audience, and Laing succeeds in showing us that particular slice of contemporary New Zealand life.

Rudy has dreams – professionally, as well as actual dreams. The professional dreams are laudable. Most of us have quietly forgotten the way we were going to change the world when we were 20, but Rudy hasn’t. He doesn’t see why he should give up the ambitious, boundary-pushing work that built his reputation. His designs are boldly un-buildable statements that no one would want to live or work in. At least that’s what his clients and staff say, but Rudy is sure he is right and they are wrong. To go with his marital problems and his scooter accident, Rudy finds himself on the outer with his colleagues as well. And it’s his practice. Who the hell do these people think they are?

Rudy’s dreams while asleep are more symbolic, and Laing depicts them with highly individual pen and brush illustrations inserted between chapters. This is one of the delights of the book. Why shouldn’t we have illustrations in a novel? It’s a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. Sarah Laing is a talented writer and artist, and for me the illustrations are a wonderful addition to the prose.

Inevitably things get worse for Rudy before they get better, and the story arc that Laing has constructed is predictable. His wife gets a new boyfriend. Rudy meets and falls for a younger, alternative woman who isn’t really interested in him, or at least not in the way he desires her. He falls out with an old friend, a friend who followed his dreams in a purer way than Rudy. He finds satisfaction in helping the owners of his local takeaway with ‘free’ architectural advice. And he doggedly pursues his glass-model building in private, where he can be true to his architectural ambition.

In the end it’s hardly a surprise when Rudy gets what he wants, inspired by his dreams and achieved through his actions. This isn’t a story that will change the world. The setting is familiar, the characters come close to being stereotypes, and there aren’t really any unexpected twists and turns. On the other hand, many people will recognise these people, the way they live and behave, and the challenges they face.

It’s a difficult balance to strike but ultimately Laing has produced a good second novel. It is the quality of her writing, and the impact of the book as a whole – including those delightful and enigmatic illustrations – which achieve this for The Fall of Light. I’m in the demographic that can identify with its characters and I enjoyed reading it but, ultimately, it doesn’t quite have the ambition of Dead People’s Music, and it doesn’t reach the same heights.