By Light Alone by Adam Roberts

By Light Alone by Adam Roberts - coverA review by Nalini Haynes

George and Marie, a wealthy couple holidaying at an elite ski resort with their nanny and two children, are completely self-absorbed, unsympathetic characters making a game of adultery.

Their daughter Leah is stolen, resulting in what appears to be the first real discomfort either parent has ever experienced. Marie flees, returning home with their remaining child, while George continues his holiday, reveling in self-pity, over-indulgence and adultery, between daily visits to hotel security.Hotel security and the local police are, at best, demonstrably ineffectual whilst being more concerned about the inevitable lawsuit than recovering Leah.

Eventually a family friend funds an investigator to recover Leah; why George failed to take this step is unclear as he clearly has staff to do everything else for him. This is probably the biggest flaw in the story.

By Light Alone is told in four portions using third person point of view with different point of view characters: firstly George’s point of view, then Leah’s, Marie’s and, finally, Issa’s point of view. This segmenting of the storytelling is a strength of the narrative.

By the time George told his portion of the story in his pompous, self-involved way, much of the world-building was revealed. I was relieved to leave George behind. By far my favourite portion of the story was Issa’s (concluding) story but the preceding narratives were essential to build the framework.

George and Marie may be shallow and self-absorbed but their characters are shaken to the core and exposed under harsh light even within their own point-of-view stories. Although they left me with a foul taste in my mouth I applaud Roberts’s skilful weaving of character and narrative. Issa’s story serves as poignant counterpoint.

Roberts’s world-building is intricate and believable with its detailed analysis of sociological ramifications resulting from the introduction of new technology.

There were some questionable aspects in the world-building. Village bosses and enforcers are all men while all other men of low socioeconomic status were indolent to the point of lassitude. Women did all the work; why would women not be the village bosses too? Why would women slave so hard to have children when bearing and raising children is so costly? Why would men not be interested in investing in their own children?

In contrast, the other ramifications of this ‘new hair’ enabling people to subsist on light, absorbing most of their energy needs from the sun like plants, were well-thought out. Peasant labourers received less pay because they no longer needed nearly as much food. Many (in this story it was the men) ceased work altogether because they could live by absorbing energy from the sun, eating only the occasional grubs or chewing mud. The remainder who wanted to work were slave labour.

By Light Alone is worth reading for the prose alone; Roberts achieves description effectively without resorting to cliché or superlatives. The prose helped me endure George’s narrative while I remained unaware that a change of point-of-view was impending.

“The landscape was a purified ideal of white, and the sky put down a kind of swallowing brightness. The trees lost their trunks in amongst all the radiance, becoming floating piles of dark green. Behind them the hotel, and its many balconies, looked like a chest with all its drawers pulled out…’

By Light Alone is not merely an unflattering character portrait of two spoilt parents; it reflects existing social structures within the framework of improved technology while exploring the outcome of a wealthy minority withholding the essentials of life from the masses of poor. By Light Alone is an intelligent, thought-provoking novel with inventive prose.

4 out of 5 stars.