While her first young adult novel about Lily and Kath took place during the 1950s, A Scatter of Light tells the story of the 18-year-old Aria in 2013, shortly after same-sex marriage was legalized all over the US. Like Last Night at the Telegraph Club, this is a book about LGBTQIA+ youth as well as it is one about coming of age and making mistakes, about art and friendship, family and … gaining life experience, I guess.
Aria Tang West should have spent the time between high school graduation and college with her best friends on Martha’s Vineyard – but now she’s stranded at her grandma’s in California. With everyone she knows being scattered all around the globe this summer, it is her grandmother’s gardener who makes these months less forgettable than Aria might have thought. Steph introduces her to her friend group and thereby to a queer community. Through music festivals and movie nights, art and old video tapes, Aria learns to get to know new parts of herself and the people around her.
I went into A Scatter of Light, hoping for something similar to Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Of course, this isn’t how one’s expectations towards a book should be like, just because it’s written by the same author. Luckily, this didn’t lead me to being disappointed. First of all, there are parallels between the two novels: Both are YA, both deal with confused adolescents and coming of age. But when going into detail, A Scatter of Light is quite different from its companion novel.
Obviously, it takes place in another time period and hence the base of the story is a new one. While Last Night at the Telegraph Club is very much defined by the society of the time and place, these aspects seem to be more in the background here. The main conflicts aren’t (singularly) created by the general situation, but rather by the characters and their individual circumstances. Naturally, all these factors appear in both books, but it appears to me that A Scatter of Light is more centered around Aria and her personal life – while still being a fictionalized portrait of a certain society.
At the same time, it’s difficult to really grasp Aria as a person. She is the one narrating the story and she is involved – often even causes – its conflicts. Still, I don’t think I’d be able to describe her sufficiently – something which occurred to be concerning most of the characters. They are all essential to the story, but I as a reader couldn’t stop feeling a certain distance towards them. Yes, I liked some of the people, and I disliked others – but none of these feelings are very strong. When it comes to the protagonist, I can’t even evaluate whether I like her or not.
Despite this distance, I did feel with her. As the narrative is very subjective, I experienced the characters’ emotions and thoughts with them. Especially the last 100 pages which I read in one sitting, were an emotional rollercoaster. I sort of sensed the descriptions of what was happening, I was intrigued in a quite peculiar way.
But I also realized that this only happened while I was reading A Scatter of Light very intensively, meaning investing some time to actually sit down and read for an hour or more. I read the first third of the book during exam season which led me to only reading ten pages every other day. Thereby, the distance I felt towards the story took over and it was difficult to find my way into the book. When I finally started focusing on it during the holidays, reading developed to the special experience I described earlier.
Speaking of descriptions: These are what A Scatter of Light lives from, basically. I already mentioned how this concerns the construction of the characters, which has two sides in my opinion. On the one hand their portrayal matches the story and the way it is told, on the other hand it gave me trouble connecting with them and the plot.
But when it comes to the atmosphere this writing style creates, I am simply enthralled. I experienced the setting through the prose, sensing the heat and the people, the thoughts and emotions lingering in the air. If I had to name one thing, that made this book so outstanding to me, I would choose the atmosphere.
In this regard, I found the role of light especially fascinating. I chose a whole post-it color to mark passages where light is described. Even though they aren’t that obvious at times, and I’ve probably overread some of them, these parts really shape the way one experiences certain scenes. I don’t think I am able to interpret how exactly Malinad Lo used this motive to paint her story. But still, it is quite clear that A Scatter of Light has a title which is much more than just that.
All in all, I don’t seem to be able to pin down my impression of this book. It feels highly authentic and realistic, while appearing disconnected to reality at the same time. It is entertaining, but not really satisfying – something that makes it realistic once more. A Scatter of Light is reflective in a subjective way, but also looks at a wide world through a narrow lens. And please, don’t ask me what I mean by this pseudo-poetic sequence of paradoxes. I don’t think I know, either.
A Scatter of Light my Malinda Lo didn’t exactly meet the vague expectations I had towards it, but it extended them in a way. It’s an impressive book, especially because of the writing and the distantly-flawed characters. Through the latter ones, it kind of reminded me of a Sally Rooney novel, but make it young adult and coming of age. If that sounds good to you, I can recommend this companion novel to Last Night at the Telegraph Club, definitely.
Title: A Scatter of Light
Author: Malinda Lo
Publisher: Dutton (Penguin Books)
Age recommendation: 15+
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