Breaking Light by Karin Altenberg

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Breaking Light by Karin Altenberg

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A beautifully written novel about those whom others designate misfits; an unforgettable journey through an unforgettable life.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: July 2014
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 978-1780877150

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Gabriel Askew retires to the village of Mortford, the place in which he grew up and from where childhood ghosts haunt him to this day. It’s a conscious decision: Gabe, ostracised as a child due to his hair lip, returns to face these demons that have controlled his life and forced him to do the unthinkable but now he wants peace… if it's not too late.

Swedish born novelist Karin Altenberg specialises in emotionally haunting stories. Her debut Island of Wings, Victorian historical fiction set on the island of St Kilda, followed the lives of the newly main-land appointed clergyman and his wife in a way that was incredibly atmospheric. Now Karin moves to the English mainland, both past and present in this new story dripping with pain and the hangover of a peer-tortured childhood.

Again Karin looks at society's outsiders in the form of young Gabe, Michael the friend whom Gabe thinks is the answer to his loneliness and others they meet both now and then. Indeed, through them Karin explores the pressures on society's outsiders to conform to a version of normality. She also explores how they manage to survive if they can't.

Throughout Gabe's life Karin introduces us to many forms of excision from society – playground bullies to circus freak shows, from domestic violence to violence that is governmentally licensed. Each thread brings us another unforgettable character. The freak show moments are perhaps a little less convincing, laying down an almost dream-like fantasy element to the novel. However these scenes still serve a purpose adding another layer to the tale's overarching feeling that physical wholeness takes on many forms. Indeed sometimes the most normal looking person has something missing and those who in our eyes are disabled can actually be more normal and whole than anyone else.

Karin cleverly ensures this doesn't become a depressing dirge of a story. We do feel the moments of sadness and realise before Gabe does the reasons why his mother doesn't want him mixing with Michael but the people and moments that populate these pages are as fascinating as they are disparate. Once we've met those who drift in and out of Gabe's life we hear about their backgrounds. This explains a lot and provides us with better understanding than Gabe has, at least at first.

Our hearts definitely go out to Gabe's allotment neighbour and, eventually, even to his mouthy cleaner once we've retraced the adventure and mishap that's brought them this far. We also begin to realise that even the most outwardly obnoxious are internally vulnerable.

The only person who we don't feel any affinity towards is Gabe's childhood nemesis, the rather nasty Jim. (Excuse me for assuming on your behalf but you'll understand why when you read it!) However, where he's concerned, we still come away feeling uplifted via the twist at the end. The book finishes on a note of catharsis that doesn't delete all the pain from the past but still leaves us cheering contentedly.

Breaking Light may not have the hypnotic thrall and engagement of Island of Wings but it's still a story well-told that provokes much thought about the standards thrust upon us and how we choose to adopt them in judgement of others.

(We'd like to thank Quercus for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you haven't read it, do give yourself the opportunity to wallow in Island of Wings. If you'd rather follow the thread of adults coming to terms with their childhood pasts, we recommend The Good Children by Roopa Farooki

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Buy Breaking Light by Karin Altenberg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Breaking Light by Karin Altenberg at


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