Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bright Before Us by Katie Arnold-Ratliff

Bright Before Us is a first novel by Katie Arnold-Ratliff, published by the literary house, Tin House.  With this novel, Arnold-Ratliff, an assistant editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, forcefully enters the literary world.

The novel's narrator, Francis Mason, is a twenty-something, progressive second grade teacher in San Francisco.  On a field trip to the beach with his class, Mason discovers the body of a suicide victim.  The trauma of the experience unravels Mason, who becomes lost in memories of his childhood love, Nora, who lost her parents in a car accident, and forces him to contend with marital unhappiness and anxieties about his wife's pregnancy.  Mason rapidly unhinges and becomes slightly paranoid, mixing reality and fantasy, while he contends with choices and understandings about love and loss.  Mason ends up on a road trip (see a cool map documenting the trip that Arnold-Ratliff put together here) and addresses his fears.

While Arnold-Ratliff uses simple and approachable language, there is nothing simplistic about this novel.  Arnold-Ratliff paints a vivid and believable portrait of San Francisco (an excellent choice of back drop for this novel) and paranoia.  At one point, Mason's paranoia becomes so intense that the novel begins to feel more like a murder mystery than a literary novel.  Arnold-Ratliff effectively switches narrational approaches in each chapter as a way of marking two separate but interlinked story lines.  The risk with a novel that explore the inner-psyche of its characters is that the plot stagnates (if there is one at all).  Throughout the novel, Arnold-Ratliff maintains authorial command and convincingly propels the narrative forward. 

I approached this novel with an open mind, was immediately engaged and could not put it down.  I was pleasantly surprised by how caught up in Mason's character I was.  Bright Before Us is a thoughtful and worthwhile book, which I would recommend reading.

For an author interview, click here.

If you happen to collect books (and not just read them), Powell's terrific IndieSpensable program is featuring this title in a special printing as its current installment.  Click here for details. (No promotional consideration received for this endorsement).

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