Archive for August 29th, 2010

August 29, 2010

Shane Jones, Light Boxes

Today’s Indian Express carries a short review I wrote of Shane Jones’ Light Boxes. I bought this book for the shallowest of reasons (it is physically gorgeous – tiny and quirky and with shiny coloured bits that glow), so I feel very lucky that it turned out to be so likeable on the inside as well.

And here is an edited version of the Express review.


“The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February” – Joseph Wood Krutch

February has taken over the town. February is eternal winter; February is a God figure in the sky; February is a man who writes in a house in the woods. Whatever he is, February is destructive and must be fought.

Shane Jones’ Light Boxes was first published by a small independent press (Publishing Genius Press in Baltimore) in 2009. It was a critical success, and Penguin picked it up, and gave it a wider release earlier this year.

Light Boxes begins with February’s ban on flight. He sends his priests into the town to burn hot air balloons and paper aeroplanes, and to destroy anything else that flies. Thaddeus Lowe, a former balloonist, along with his wife Selah and daughter Bianca revolt against these conditions. They paint balloons into hidden corners, and kites all the way up Bianca’s arms.

After an abortive attempt to fly a kite in defiance of February’s orders (but February’s orders are far more than that, and a cloud shaped like a hand slams the kite to the ground), Thaddeus is approached by a group calling themselves The Solution. The Solution wear plastic bird masks to remind them of what they have lost. They are organizing a revolution. As first Bianca and then Selah are taken away from him, Thaddeus becomes the main figure in the war against February.

The scenes of organised (and increasingly futile) revolt form a reasonably coherent narrative, but things are complicated by the interspersing of little snippets of February’s own life in his cottage in the woods (or the sky) with someone referred to only as The Girl Who Smelled of Honey and Smoke. These scenes make February’s relationship with the town (and with Thaddeus’ reality) rather ambiguous, and it is difficult to attempt any sort of unified reading of the novel as a result. Is this a story about rebellion? A story about narrative? A story about depression? It lends itself to all of these theories and more, and then flits away at the last moment.

Jones experiments with different ways of using text. Font size varies wildly, some pages will only carry one line, and there are lists and recipes and diagrams and the like. February’s own writings show up from time to time, and make for fascinating reading.

Note Written by February
There is a house builder and his wife. Name the house builder February and refer to the wife as the girl who smells of honey and smoke.
You coward.

At times Light Boxes seems to be trying too hard, so that it risks being overly precious. It is slightly too aware of its own cleverness and quirkiness. But the quirky imagery (balloons and owls and brightly coloured masks against the grey weather) easily becomes macabre – Selah’s lovely, grotesque death is one of the strongest moments in the book – and this saves the book as a whole from ever quite being twee. And the sections where Thaddeus Lowe must cope with the loss of his family are deeply-felt and real, and definitely not pretentious.

Light Boxes is an odd little (literally; it’s small and practically square in shape) book, and one that is beautiful and baffling and wonderfully crafted. More of this sort of thing, please.