I recently came across a novel so engrossing, so fascinating, and so well written that I was surprised that I had never heard of the writer. I discovered LIGHT YEARS by James Salter, first published in 1976, when Andrew Miller recently picked it for the ‘Book of a Lifetime’ slot in the Independent. It sounded interesting so I ordered it from the London Library. The theme is a familiar one: the failure of a marriage. It is Salter’s use of language that is so extraordinary, particularly of images that are startling, almost incongruous, yet strangely apt. Flicking through the book I’ve picked out a couple of examples almost at random. Take this description of the family Christmas, which included ‘lighting real candles on the tree, a huge tree standing near the window, thick as a bear’s coat.’ For me that captures the sense of the tree as something tamed, of nature brought into the house, but awe-inspiring, too. Or there’s this: a friend comments on the breakdown of Viri and Nedra’s marriage: ‘any two people when they separate, it’s like splitting a log. The pieces aren’t even. One of them contains the core.’
It’s an ambitious novel, and there are times when Salter doesn’t always quite pull it off, but almost all the time he does. It’s a rich, thoughtful, complex novel and he deserves to be much, much better known.