Two secrets lie at the heart of Winnipeg writer Catherine Hunter's novel After Light, and they shape the lives of both those who keep the secrets and those who are unaware of them.

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Two secrets lie at the heart of Winnipeg writer Catherine Hunter's novel After Light, and they shape the lives of both those who keep the secrets and those who are unaware of them.

The first secret is held by Deirdre Quinn, a young Irish woman who crosses the Atlantic to escape her past and make a better life for herself and her infant son. The second secret is held by her granddaughter Siobh°n (Von) Garrison, trapped in a life she feels is not the one she should be living.

Hunter's historical fiction is a successful departure from her poetry and mystery novels.

Hunter's historical fiction is a successful departure from her poetry and mystery novels.

Both secrets surface after Von's younger sister Ròisn (Rosheen) dies in New York. Her death compels Von to explore her sister's life and follow the research Rosheen began, tracing their grandmother's life in Ireland and their father Frank's role as a soldier with the Canadian army in the Second World War.

Hunter, who teaches English and creative writing at the University of Winnipeg, is the award-winning author of three poetry collections, three previous novels and a novella, as well as essays and reviews. Her suspense novel Queen of Diamonds was shortlisted for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and Carol Shields City of Winnipeg Book Award in 2007.

She skilfully interweaves the stories of three generations throughout the book's three sections. Each generation sees its brightest hopes dashed through circumstances beyond its control. Deirdre's plan to marry her true love goes awry when her lover fails to appear at their planned rendezvous. Her son Frank's dream of becoming an artist is destroyed when shrapnel blinds him right after he saves the lives of a Dutch sister and brother in the last months of the war. Von's passion for writing and hopes of marrying her young fiancée vanish due to the need for her to keep the family nursery business running and care for her disabled father.

Complicating Von's life further is Rosheen's drug and alcohol addiction. When Von first begins to sort through the artwork and folders filled with papers that Rosheen leaves behind in their grandmother's Brooklyn apartment, she can't make sense of what her sister was working on. Rosheen's collages, held in high regard by other artists and gallery owners, seem to be simply an extension of the drawings that filled her school notebooks. However, as Von learns more about the lives of her sister, father and grandmother, many things become clear.

Hunter's thorough research into the lives of Brooklyn residents in the early decades of the 1900s and the battles fought by the Canadian Black Watch in the Second World War are displayed within her characters' lives as she details their hardships and triumphs. She has a personal link to the character of Frank Garrison -- her own father was an American who joined the Canadian army. He too was wounded at Dieppe and blinded in the Netherlands.

Following the war, Frank attends university and trains as a social worker despite his blindness, but still resents being unable to pursue fine arts studies and a career as an artist. He's also plagued by terrible nightmares triggered by his wartime experiences, during which he terrorizes his wife and daughters. Hunter reveals how many young men were traumatized by their wartime experiences but had to keep their experiences locked inside -- they were too horrible to share with loved ones.

Hunter's fictional family has touches that will resonate with Winnipeg readers -- the Garrisons' nursery business is located on the outskirts of St. Boniface near the Seine River. She writes of summer trips to Grand Beach, Clear Lake and Lake of the Woods.

Yet the sections of her story that take place in Cobh, Ireland, Brooklyn and Bergen-op-Zoom, the Netherlands also contain realistic detail about local landmarks and architecture. These touches serve to bring her characters to life.

While After Light is a departure from Hunter's previous work, it is an entertaining look at how family secrets and memories are passed from generation to generation.

 

Andrea Geary is a reporter with Canstar Community News.

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Andrea Geary

Andrea Geary
St. Vital community correspondent

Andrea Geary is a community correspondent for St. Vital and was once the community journalist for The Headliner.