Friday, 5 September 2014

Light reading

A good story doesn't have to be embedded in a weighty tome,
sometimes it can be quite Light.

To my shame, I haven't taken the time to read a good book in far too long.  Commuting with a sexy new little Macbook Pro means that time which might once have been spent snuggled within the pages of an engrossing book is now spent pecking ineptly away at a shiny metallic keyboard (for either business, or pleasure).
So when the striking cover of a young adult novel caught my eye recently, I thought: why not?  It seemed to be a little bit about maths and physics, set in Wellington and most importantly, short enough for me to get through before being distracted by other obligations.
Speed of Light is the latest young adult novel by the prolific Joy Cowley, a multi-award winning author of New Zealand fiction.  A passionate advocate of improving child literacy, Cowley claims to have struggled with reading when she was a child and learned valuable lessons through her own experiences:
"I believe that learning to read must be a pleasurable and meaningful exercise. If it isn't, then we teach children to read and to hate reading at the same time."

Before getting to Speed of Light itself, I'll just note that phenomenon some call 'syncronicity'.  I was dimly aware of Joy Cowley, but once starting this book I just happened to lay out an article about her at work, then read an interview with film Producer Dave Gibson who famously filmed Cowley's novel The Quiet One in 1985, and finally learned that she actually lives just down the road from our own home in the Wairarapa.
Such happenstance is appropriate for Speed of Light, a story about encountering and ultimately putting faith in influences beyond mere numbers, logic and financial and material gain. It's a surprisingly gritty tale about a dysfunctional, materialistic family who've somehow fallen out of touch with the fundamentals of life, and the efforts of the youngest child, Jeff, to find solace in the dependable, undeceptive world of numbers.

Tragic circumstances lead to his home life becoming steadily more unbearable; parents financially ruined and violently estranged, and his beloved big sister abandoning him for a doomed relationship with a married man. Eventually, Jeff's final comfort in the rational  and scientific is challenged by the dramatic manifestation of an elderly woman who might be delusional, or might very well be the supernatural agent of his deliverance she claims to be.

Cowley introduces each chapter with a short passage describing a particular scientific principle or definiton, whose relevance to the following section of the story becomes gradually clear.  For example, chapter ten is a turning point; when Jeff's plummeting situation has reached the point where it cannot get any worse, and is cannily prefaced by this description:
A falling object reaches terminal velocity when the sum of the drag force and buoyancy equals the downward force of gravity acting on the object.  Since the net force on the object is then zero, the object has zero accelleration.  Drag depends on the projected area and that is why objects with a large area relative to mass, such as parachutes, have a lower terminal velocity than objects with a small area relative to mass, such as bullets.

Brief observations on the properties of light, the nature of tides, prime numbers and many others are used to begin other chapters with equal deftness and acuity.
As we are often told, it is always darkest before the dawn, and Jeff's mystery 'guardian' opens his eyes to the importance of adhering to life as it should be, before age, cares and woes gradually dull its shining and simple truths.  Or is she simply a senile woman who has rediscovered, or even invented, a childish philosophy in her final, backward-looking days?

Despite being written for 'young adults' Speed of Light isn't an easy read in any sense of the word. It makes you work, and even despair at times, but I hope I'm not giving anything away to reveal that Jeff and his family's eventual re-emergence into the light makes all their beautifully-written tribulations worthwhile.

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