01/10/2018

A Ring of Endless Light (by Madeleine L'Engle)

I’m enjoying reading my way, gradually, through Madeleine L’Engle’s teenage fiction novels. Although I had previously read ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and at least one of its sequels, most of L’Engle’s other books weren’t published until I was an adult so we didn’t acquire them until our sons were in their teens - and in those years I didn’t read many books myself. So it seemed like a good idea to start reading them now.

I found it a tad confusing at first to know what order to read them in, since some characters appear in different series. I was also mystified that my copy of the book ‘A Ring of Endless Light’ states that it’s the third in the Austin Family series, when it’s evidently the fourth…

I embarked on the Austin series a little over a year ago, not expecting too much. Rather than the mystical, time-travelling element in the ‘Wrinkle’ series, these books are about an ordinary family. They are narrated by Vicky, the second of four children, who is twelve in ‘Meet the Austins’.

In ‘A Ring of Endless Light’, the family are staying on ‘The Island’, in their grandfather’s home. It’s their favourite holiday destination, and is mentioned in the second in the series, ‘The Moon by Night’. Vicky’s father has finished his year in New York (covered in ‘The Young Unicorns’) and is trying to write a book. But the main reason they’ve come to stay for rather longer than usual is that grandfather is dying of leukemia. He is unlikely to live until the end of the summer, and the family want to be with him until the end.

It’s a sombre theme in a children’s book, one that permeates the whole story. Indeed, the book begins with the funeral of a family friend, and includes several other sad losses. Vicky, who is now almost sixteen, begins to think a lot about life and death. This is sometimes on her own, sometimes in discussion with grandfather or friends. As with most of L’Engle’s books there’s an underlying Christian theme, and this comes out in many of the questions, as Vicky ponders topics such as cryogenic freezing, standard burial or cremation, annihilation and heaven.

At the same time Vicky, who has often felt like the odd one out in her family, is beginning to blossom. No longer lanky and ‘all elbows’, she still isn’t a scientific genius like her older brother John, nor a beauty like her younger sister Suzy (who is also highly academic and scientifically minded). But she’s discovered a gift for writing, and for communicating in ways that others find harder. She feels closest to her seven-year-old brother Rob, who is wise beyond his years but still young in many ways.

There’s a romance element to the book too. Vicky is courted by three different young men, and goes on dates with them all. This isn’t cheating; she makes it clear to them all that she’s just a friend, and they all know about each other. The first is Leo, son of the man whose funeral is covered in the first chapter. Vicky has known him for years and never much liked him, but she discovers that he has some depth, and starts to like him as a friend. He’s a nice young man, but tries to push for more in ways that she doesn’t want.

Then there’s Zachary, who first appeared in ‘The Moon by Night’: he’s a wealthy, spoilt young man who drives too fast, and has a worrying heart condition. However Vicky considers him very good-looking, and attractive in a disturbing way. He insists he ‘needs’ her, and she feels a stir of excitement when she’s with him, though she doesn’t like his risk-taking nature, or his general cynicism.

The third young man is Adam, who is working in a marine biology centre with Vicky’s brother John. Adam is one of the cross-series characters, who first appeared in the book ‘The Arm of the Starfish’. Adam enlists Vicky’s help in a project he’s embarking on, relating to dolphin communication. She proves to be quite talented, and also realises that she would like him to be much more than a friend and colleague…

In wondering why three such different young men are given such important roles in this novel, it occurred to me that they represent three of CS Lewis’s classic ‘Four Loves’. Indeed, if we take into account the fourth young man in the book (Vicky’s brother John) all four are represented: John with family affection, Leo with friendship, Zachary as ‘Eros’, and Adam as self-sacrificing love.

As with the first two books in this series, there’s not a great deal of plot. The story is character-based, alternating poignant scenes with grandfather and Vicky’s growing relationships with her three admirers. I like the Austin family very much even they’re a tad idealised, with everyone helping each other, and pleasant evenings of singing and reading aloud. Yet there are tensions in the family; Vicky and Suzy don’t always get along, for instance. They’re all tense about the likelihood of losing grandfather, and show it in very different ways.

Vicky has a lot of freedom, and is a person of strong principles. It’s made clear that she feels liberated in being able to say ‘no’ to some of her young men’s advances, and to refuse to drink any alcohol. It’s a great example for teenage girls who might say ‘yes’ due to feelings of pressure and insecurity, and quite relevant in today’s culture when debates range over issues such as this.

I understand that the portrayal of dolphins in the book is somewhat incorrect; but it serves its purpose to contrast their generally playful and caring natures with some of the horrific examples of the cruelty of humankind. There is also a contrast between the family’s care of each other and those they love, and with grandfather’s gradual slipping away from the world.

There are many quotations from classics of all eras, including the Bible, and much that’s thought-provoking related to how we see life and end-of-life. The Christian themes, while inevitably prevalent (grandfather is a retired minister) are quite low-key, without any preaching.

After the first few chapters, I found this book engrossing. I thought it beautifully written, particularly the last chapter. By the time I reached the end, my emotions had been fully wrung out, and all I could think was, ‘Wow!’

Very highly recommended, to teenagers and adults.

This book could stand alone, but is best read after the earlier Austin books, and perhaps also ‘The Arm of the Starfish’ where Adam is introduced.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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