Breaking Light is Karin Altenberg’s second novel, following her Orange Prize (2012) nominated debut, Island of Wings. In Breaking Light, we follow Gabriel Askew in two narratives separated by around forty years – that of his life as a child and young adult in Mortford and then as a retired professor returning to his childhood home. The story is a gripping exploration of self and belonging in life generally, and in coping with life’s difficulties. Altenberg herself has commented in an interview about the book that “[she] has always felt like an outsider.” This is something her protagonist, Gabriel, struggles with from a young age having been born with a cleft palate that provides ammunition for school bullies and is the reason, he initially believes, for his father’s absence.
Gabriel distances himself physically and emotionally from other people due to his struggle with his facial disfigurement that causes him to loathe himself but also, following his betrayal of his brother (a key incident in the novel), there is a psychological distance between himself and other people. For most of the novel, he never truly connects with anyone else. The guilt he feels because of his actions becomes all-consuming, and remains with him throughout his life; his adult thoughts continually return to his childhood and the betrayal of his brother. It is not only Gabe’s characterisation, however, that embodies Altenberg’s exploration of self and belonging as hints of the outsider, the “other” as it were, appear in different forms throughout the novel, through various physical deformities, domestic abuse and racial prejudice. The novel attempts to reinvent our standardised view of normality by opening this term up and illuminating its weaknesses – who and what can truly be defined as “normal” and where or what is “home”?
The structuring of the narrative is rather interesting in itself. To begin with, although we may assume, we are not entirely sure that the two narratives concern the same person, as Altenberg introduces us to Gabriel and a Mr. Askew. Eventually, the childhood story takes on a flashback form as Mr. Askew reflects upon his past. We are also briefly acquainted with the perspective of other characters who are also dealing with a conflicting self and home connection. Altenberg’s beautiful imagery never falters throughout these touching contemplative moments, with particular attention paid to the landscape of her settings. This becomes even more fitting when we consider the novelist has a PhD in Landscape Archaeology. Although the novel deals with the difficulties of fitting in, it is clear that Altenberg herself is very comfortable in the outdoors.
At times disturbing, the novel is a very honest and consequently gripping story, a bildungsroman even, about a man’s search for an anchor in his life. Although the novel’s end is highly positive, it is not “happy” in a conventional sense as we know sadness and loss will most likely befall the protagonist fairly soon, yet his final unified sense of self is touching and comfortingly satisfying. It seems fitting to leave the last word on this highly recommended read to the novelist herself:
“It’s a story of trying to come to terms with the way your life turned out, about forgiving yourself and forgiving the world for what it’s done to you. It’s a book about home and being able to find a place to fit in.”