Trick of the Light by Fiona McCallum

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

This is the story of a woman named Erica whose mother had recently died and whose husband Stuart had passed away soon after. Erica and her daughters Mackenzie and Issy are trying to put their lives back together. Erica is devastated when her financial advisers inform her that her venture capitalist husband had lost all their money. She had planned and paid for an overseas trip for her daughters before the financial loss and is determined to keep the family’s real financial situation from them.

Fiona McCallum is an experienced writer who should know that a study of the effects of depression is a legitimate subject to pursue in a novel if, and only if, the form of the novel predominates.

McCallum’s interest in depression is revealed in the book in several ways.

“More and more she was having to laugh off moments of vagueness, but the truth was plenty of days she just wanted to curl up and die too. Or not die, but just not have to do anything or face up to anything. Give in to the fog around her pulling her down, smothering her” (27).

She tried her best not to think too deeply about anything much because thoughts never remained isolated:

“Most things were connected, with one idle ponderance linking to or prompting another. Before grief, thoughts and memories tied together had been comfortable and comforting. She longed for the occasional isolated memory, a single grain of sand, but instead got pulled into quicksand, the darkness and drag of which took a lot of effort to resist” (1).

It was the quicksand in which Stuart had dumped her. Her depressed state of mind led her to believe that she could not confide in her daughters since she could not risk their turning against her. She carried the weight alone. Increasingly she depended upon routine, what she called muscle memory, to keep her going. Often, she sat staring ahead unable to get up and get on with the day’s chores.

McCallum relies on this sort of description to fill out the first half of her book. Interspersed with the concentration on depression are short excerpts relating to Erica’s friends, Rose, Steph and Michelle. Each is described according to her idiosyncrasies: Rose is like watching a cricket at work, Steph all businesslike, putting people’s lives in order, and Michelle, mother of three kids and convinced all men are douchebags. These three are introduced at a time when the reader needs relief from the ever-constant darkness.

In the depth of depression, while unhappy at work, Erica meets a young artist named Mark and his friend ‘Kayla’ who want her to teach him artistic techniques. Erica refuses because her depression is too debilitating. She finds herself desperate for a nap, yet it is only eleven o’clock, and comes close to ditching work for the day.

This constant harping on depression makes Fiona McCallum’s book difficult to read. The world has gone dark and the main character shows no signs of seeking the light. The reader is dragged down into the murk with her. It is a truly depressing read. Moreover, only the faint outline of a story is seen.

Then the Fiona McCallum we all know, emerges like a butterfly from its chrysalis. There is a turning point. Around about page 150 the author redirects the story towards mysterious happenings in Erica’s home at night. There are noises for which she blames possums but makes no effort to find the real cause. A knife appears in her kitchen sink covered with peanut paste. A clock on the wall stops, and when Erica checks she finds the batteries have been removed. For all these incidents she blames some failing in herself. This woman is frustrating!!

Ever practical Steph asks her to look after her dog, Daphne (275). Each night the dog is restless and on one occasion insists on going out into the darkness. While Erica is outside, the mystery of the happenings in the house is resolved, in one of the most inane endings it has been my misfortune to read.

It is difficult to understand why an intelligent person like Erica, sick though she is, could not have worked out for herself what was happening in her home. Furthermore, Erica’s friends were supportive people, her daughters level-headed and generous. Opening to them that she was extremely short of funds, that she had lost her job, and was finding the deaths of two-loved ones a grievous burden to bear, should have been an early move.

How the title has anything to do with the story remains a mystery.

This is a disturbing read, part treatise, part novel. I cannot recommend it.

Trick of the Light

(2021)

by Fiona McCallum

HarperCollins

ISBN: 978-1-8672-0786-3

$32.99; 368 pp

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