on An Accidental Light, a novel by Elizabeth Diamond (Other Press)

“The thing which is so bad about the average third person novel is that the matter, the interpretation, is absolutely without life-view, it’s written the way everyone else sees it,” Norman Mailer wrote to William Styron in a 1953 letter published in the February 26, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books. “I think that’s why writers like Maugham as they shrivel turn so naturally to the first person narrator – it’s the perfect substitute for a life-view. One’s form is given by the sole perceiver, although unhappily it’s the exact opposite of the expansive life-view of the major novelist.” This is a poignant harangue since we hear Mailer talking himself into the importance of capabilities he would fail to display in his fiction at the level of a “major novelist.” In the writer, he is saying, an inimitable “life-view” precedes and influences the novel’s premise. It is a spirited sound strung through the matter.

accident1.gifElizabeth Diamond’s debut novel An Accidental Light appears at first as a premise in search of credible first-person voices to inhabit it. Set in Watford, a town situated 30 kilometers northwest of London, the narrative alternates between two speakers -- Jack Phillips, a Watford policeman, and Lisa Jenkins, a secretary at an auto repair shop. Both are married and in their late thirties. One late rainy afternoon, Jack kills Lisa’s thirteen-year old daughter Laura when she darts out from her school bus and is struck by Jack’s patrol car. This event occurs on page one, a signal that everything to follow will occur as a result of this trauma. Predictably, this is a story of unraveled and restrung lives affected by shock, an examination of cause and effect.

But An Accidental Light strives beyond the conveniences of a “form given by a sole perceiver.” Auden said, “Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” Diamond writes out of emotional maturity and an apparent lack of interest in authenticity. Her originality stems from an understanding of obsession and how the mind stalks the imagery of the past, or attempts to wring an improved future out of tragedy.

Jack’s narrative is a written one. Granted several weeks leave of absence, he sees a psychiatrist as part of his therapy. An early entry reads, “Write it all down, you say. Keep a journal and every day write down what you’re thinking, feeling. Write about the repetitive thoughts, the flashbacks, the bad dreams … When the words are out there, they’ll lose their power, you say.” The experience of killing Laura has flattened his affect, insofar as we can tell from the dialogue with his wife Sam, his friend and co-patrolman Dave, and others included in his diary. There is a chilled edge to his response, a mental immobility that is less a brooding than a protectively restrained way of observing things. Here is a longer, typical passage:

"That night, getting into bed, switching out the bedside light. Sam lying next to me. I can see the outline of her profile, the dark mass of her hair on the pillow. A question forms on her lips, hovers in darkness over our heads. I can feel the weight of it.
’Jack, do you think you’ll ever go back to work?’
There. She’s said it now. She’s waited a long time to say it, but now it’s done. The weight over our heads shifts in the darkness, breaks up, scatters down over our faces like feathers.
’Because I don’t think you will. I think you’ll never go back to work. I think you’re done with it. With being a policeman.’
’I don’t know, Sam. I don’t know.’
’What’s going to happen to us? What’s going to happen to us and the girls? How are we going to live, Jack?’"

Strangely and movingly, as Jack's background story is filled in by his doused spirit, the reader begins to piece together a psyche that perhaps was never completely alive. It is a psyche we comprehend through our own unlived hours. Evelyn Waugh wrote, “I regard writing not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me.” I would not make a case for An Accidental Light as a great novel of our time. But I do believe that Diamond has accomplished something quite subtle through her characters’ narratives and has, along Waugh’s lines, focused on their use of and struggle with language rather than their self-analyses. In both Jack’s and Lisa’s case, Laura’s death leads to confrontations with the lingering difficulties of their own childhoods. These conflicts, depicted in carefully and simply drawn episodes, continue to generate an enigmatic hold on the characters, even as they become illuminated by a sort of understanding. There certainly are several “turning points” in An Accidental Light, but Diamond knows how to retain tension, not only to keep the reader engaged but to create verisimilitude, to avoid the too easy step forward towards resolution.

Lisa Jenkins’ narrative is somewhat less effective than Jack’s. She addresses her words to the ghost of Laura – and so, as one side of a mental conversation her talk is truly fictive, a constructed organization of thought, perhaps much more fluent than a person of her background is capable of. As her marriage to Derek fails (they met at the garage where he is a mechanic), Lisa articulates the embedded faultline in their relationship and the means by which she fooled herself into living with this man: “Here I am, at thirty-seven, and I’m thinking of passion for the first time in my life.” When Derek begins to harass Jack, it is Dave who makes an unofficial visit to the Jenkins’ house:

"I sometimes have this funny feeling that all the people who are going to be important to me in my life, all their names, are written down on scraps of paper and put into a hat and before I was born I picked the names out of the hat and decided what role each will play. This one will be my mother. This one, the man I’ll marry. This one, Laura, will be my daughter. This one, Jack Phillips, will be the man who’ll kill my daughter – even though I know it was an accident. A policeman on his way home from duty was driving the grey BMW … I have suddenly remembered where I have seen this policeman before. He’d been there at the inquest, sitting next to that Jack Phillips."

Minor characters play pivotal roles in this novel – and one of them is the ghost of Laura. Both Jack and Lisa see her apparition and react to it. I think Diamond has made a serious mistake in mixing the supernatural within what is otherwise a telling of tense withholding. There are also episodes with clairvoyants and spirit-guides, though these are carried off without intruding into the deeper structure of the novel’s voice and mentality. The visions of Laura are not presented as the tricks of traumatized eyes. The ghost is injected into the action of the novel, guiding the safety of one of Jack’s two girls. This pleasure-ruining episode adds nothing to the texture of the book, mere sensationalism that underestimates the novel’s inherent strengths.

diamond1.jpgAn Accidental Light is a story about the possibility for change – and how tragedy actually provides opportunity, though the steps toward a fuller life entail yet more trouble, more snares to experience and evade. Jack Phillips had once been an art student but apathy set in. Later, he took steps to become a policeman, a job he never liked. Elizabeth Diamond, too, may have had an early intention to live a life among literature, but as her publisher notes, she spent many years working “as a home help, a shop assistant, a typist, and a special needs teacher, and dreaming of being a published author, until a chance place on a writers' development award, followed by an arts council grant, gave her the time to write her first novel – just to see ‘if she could’.” Clearly, she can.

[Published February 10, 2009. 288 pages, $23.95 hardcover]