In This Light, by Montana-raised writer Melanie Rae Thon, is a brutally lucid new collection. Reading the nine stories seems akin to being electrocuted and then wading into a frigid body of water nine times in succession—only to realize that you love every step of the way. What I'm trying to say is that this is a damn fine collection of short fiction. You don't merely read this book, you listen carefully to its spellbinding rhythms, and once you've recovered from its unflinching outlook, all you want to do is read it again. And then again. And maybe once more to make sure you've absorbed it all.
Raised in Kalispell and now a teacher at the University of Utah, Thon is the author of four novels (including Sweet Hearts) and was deemed a Best Young American Novelist by Granta magazine. In This Light—handpicked from her two previous collections of short gems and supplemented by three unpublished stories—displays an uncanny ability to disrupt and to restructure our senses in settings so darkly intimate they seem to be vignettes from a very dysfunctional memoir.
Like Flannery O'Connor without the Catholic undertones (Thon's secular mysticism concerns the body and the mind, as opposed to any overt Christian deity), her impressionistic prose is so reflective of her artistic vision that these tales read as though she's pursuing some elusive theme. Characters exist on the fringes of consciousness. Horrible things are always about to happen to the innocent and corrupt alike. Hope is a transient moment spotlighted for an instant and left to casually slip away. A writer's writer, Thon told Bomb magazine she was influenced early on by Faulkner and Toni Morrison (and also by her native state and its topography: "No matter how long I live somewhere else, those images are embedded in ways I can't escape," she says of Montana), and while their lingering inspiration is present, she holds her own as a poetic stylist.
Likewise, Thon's storylines are never linear, but seem as though to take place behind a window of frosted glass. In what is arguably the finest crystallization of Thon's daring story-telling, "Punishment" is based on the hanging of a wronged slave girl in 1858, for the murder of the unreliable narrator's brother; the story manages to both convey the barbaric mindset of a pre-Civil War slave-owning family, and also dig into the primitive taboos that have remained a part of our collective psyche.
"Father, Lover, Deadman, Dreamer" concerns a girl who runs down and kills a drunken American Indian on a lonely Montana road and the subsequent help from her good-hearted father in covering up the crime. But these stories don't jolt the reader because of any graphic shocks (although there are a few of those, too); instead, they always stun with the author's crisply precise use of language and imagery, such as this passage from "Iona Moon":
"Daddy sat on the porch with Leon and Rafe and Dale. They rocked in the great silence of men, each with his pipe, each with the same tilt of the head as if a single thought wove through their minds."
That alone could teach a short course on descriptive writing.
Some of the collected works here are undoubtedly more powerful than others. The snapshot of an unconscious girl in a refrigerator in the middle of a field, from "Necessary Angels," will stay with me far longer than I would like, whereas "Tu B'Shvat", the lengthiest and weakest of the selections, is by turns probing, meandering and overlong. But even with her less viscerally startling pieces, Thon is a master of encapsulating volumes of beauty and dread in a single tale, and making each sentence resemble a new form of expression.
In This Light haunts like a well-constructed, moody nightmare, best savored in small doses. Her themes are those of the Greek tragedians: merciless lust that manifests as incest and rape, violent men and quietly desperate women and carnal metamorphosis. Alcoholism and prostitution are thrown in for good measure. And yet, Thon raises these stories beyond gritty realism and into the lyricism of compassion and understanding. Thon's voice is her plot: her graceful images like a chorus dissecting her characters innermost flaws. Behind the ageless horror and veneration of the body, the forbidden acts and the monologues with dead people, In This Light is about common individuals draped in longing, aimlessly seeking redemption.