Where Light Meets Water by Susan Paterson

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

For a debut novel, Susan Paterson’s Where Light Meets Water is a delightful read. The imagery she has created with her descriptions is vivid, the information about various places around the globe is interesting and her characters are complex and endearing.

For the storyline, she has created the fictional character, Thomas Rutherford, inspired by her great- great- great grandfather, a master mariner and maritime artist. The story is divided into four parts, each of which highlights major circumstances in the life of the protagonist. These are Part One: London 1847; Part Two: London 1848 – 52; Part Three: Melbourne and Port Chalmers 1853 – 1871; and Part Four: The Pacific 1871.

Because of the time in which the novel is set, there are vivid descriptions of the environment but also of society as it existed then with its ingrained stereotypes, struggles for survival, and class consciousness.

The basic storyline about the life of the protagonist unfolds slowly and often with unexpected outcomes. The reason for this is that the story is impacted by many layers of focus. For some readers this might be frustrating as they want to know what happens to the people concerned, but for those who are prepared to follow what the author has presented a much richer experience can be achieved.

When Tom’s father is lost to the sea and his mother is left in strained circumstances, the young lad is taken on to a life at sea under the watchful eye of his father’s friend. He is not given any privileges and learns his skills from experience. Yet Tom is not like other mariners with their sea-grime roughness, brusque manner, seeing everything as black or white as if the world itself was the simplicity of a ship’s tall dark masts slung with big white sails (255).

Tom like other aspects of this story is a combination of opposites. He is a boy then a man with all the strength and endurance required for his job but at the same time he is an artist and sees the world not as black and white but in all its variety of hues as it is influenced by the environment. Throughout his life he ‘always searched for balance: land and sea, art and sail’ (318).

When Tom meets Catherine Ogilvie, a fellow artist, the reader is introduced to the English class system at the time. Yet Catherine for all her privilege and riches found her life confined by her position. She craved things that she had been barred from and so, when meeting a fellow artist, she mined him for the information she craved. As artists they helped each other. Here again were opposites. His work was detailed and accurate, hers full of emotion and colour. Much of this part of the novel is entwined in the exploration of painting techniques.

The rest of the story follows Tom’s life as it is impacted by circumstances. Emotions are raw and threaten to swamp him, but his art gives him purpose. Society in the nineteenth century in Australia and New Zealand are highlighted as he follows the call of trade.

Four hundred pages long, this is an epic story. In a note at the end of the book the author reminds the reader that, although inspired by her ancestor, the life story of Tom Rutherford, her protagonist, is imaginary and should not be read as a biography. Incidentally the character Catherine Ogilvie shares the name with the author’s great-great-great grandmother, but nothing more.

This novel contains much for the reader – an interesting life, an intimate depiction of life at sea and the dilemmas faced by men used to this life when land based. It contains many contrasts or opposites in lifestyles, art techniques, aspirations, prejudices and reactions to life’s obstacles. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel though at times I thought it was a bit drawn out and overly art orientated.

Where Light Meets Water


by Susan Paterson

Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 978 176110 224 0

$32.99; 400 pp


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