I don’t think it’s a secret that I enjoy pretty much anything and everything that Ms Roberts writes—short stories, long novels, trilogies, series, mysteries… She writes it, sooner or later I’ll read it—and chances are I’ll review it too. Sometimes sooner, sometimes really later—as is the case now. Northern Lights was first published in hardcover back in 2004, and it has the uncomfortable distinction of being the only paperback edition of Ms Roberts’ work in the ohmahgawdsouncomfortable Venti edition*.
Set in the very small and *ahem* colorful fictional town of Lunacy, in Alaska, Northern Lights is a love story, a mystery, and the portrait of a community superficially reminiscent of Northern Exposure, full of eccentric characters in a setting that feels almost out of time.
Here is the blurb from the paperback edition:
Lunacy was Nate Burke’s last chance. As a Baltimore cop, he’d watched his partner die on the street—and the guilt still haunts him. With nowhere else to go, he accepts the job as chief of police in this tiny, remote Alaskan town, where the peace provides a balm for his shattered soul—and an unexpected affair with pilot Meg Galloway warms his nights…
But other things in Lunacy are heating up. Nate suspects the killer in an unsolved murder still walks the snowy streets. His investigation will unearth the secrets and suspicions that lurk beneath the placid surface, as well as bring out the big-city survival instincts that made him a cop in the first place. And his discovery will threaten the new life—and the new love—that he has finally found for himself.
While the second paragraph is a tad melodramatic in its phrasing, this blurb actually does its purported job and presents an intriguing but accurate summary of the story within the covers. Chalk up another one for truth in advertising!
It can be said that this novel is mostly Nate’s story—wading through the aftermath of his partner’s murder, moving across the continent in a (useless) bid to escape from himself, learning to live again.
It is also a damned good mystery, with an old murder and a fresh body.
In all honesty, I do not remember whether I figured out the identity of the killer when I read Northern Lights the first time, but my sweetheart did. He said that Ms Roberts’ characterizations are so good, so true to each character, that the identity of the murderer was clear after a couple of scenes—because his voice was the same during the murder as it was during his interactions with the rest of the town. Upon re-reading, I agree with him. Definitely cool, IMO.
But let’s go back a bit, to Nate.
As the book starts, Nate is still struggling to recover from a series of personal hits that were capped by his partner’s death during the same shootout where he himself was wounded. Whether exacerbated by his injuries, by the medication, or by his personal circumstances, Nate’s survivor guilt devolves into a serious case of clinical depression.
From where I sit, Ms Roberts’ portrayal of Nate’s struggle with depression feels so absolutely real, so visceral, it touched a chord with me. He knows that, even when he has good days, even when he is enjoying himself and feeling reborn, there is always that abyss behind him, beckoning, pulling him back. As he tells Meg, Nate himself doesn’t know if he’ll be any good at living; he’s “not a sure bet”.
This self-awareness, along with a core of decency and unshakable integrity make Nate a very appealing character. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also intelligent and has a sense of humor 😉
Meg is an entirely different sort of person. She is, in fact, a character that I struggled to like. Meg is strong, resourceful and independent. She is also detached, selfish and self-centered, holds no illusions about herself, and has no particularly pressing urge to change in order to accommodate anyone else’s needs in her life.
Maybe all this can be explained away by her having been raised by Charlene—who is a barracuda—or perhaps is a natural consequence of her father’s disappearance when she was just a teen. I don’t know, but still, there is a hardness to Meg that repelled me for a good bit of the book.
The thing is that all this made Nate and Meg a really interesting couple. The conflict between them is one of personality, emotional baggage and life experience—rather than the often contrived circumstances of other novels—and I love the gradual development of the feelings between them, and the compromises both learn to make.
Charlene, Meg’s mother, is also the owner of the biggest business in Lunacy, The Lodge. The Lodge is the social center of the town—it provides food, entertainment and, through the tourists that stay there, brings in revenue for other local businesses. Charlene herself is simultaneously a slightly dislikable character and a very sympathetic one. As I mentioned earlier, she is the typical barracuda, happy to sink her talons on anything with pants that crosses her path. But she is also a lonely and unhappy woman who lacks enough self-awareness to age gracefully.
At over six hundred pages, there is enough space in Northern Lights to explore the different relationships between a larger than usual (for Ms Roberts’ novels) cast of characters—from Nate’s deputies to the town’s mayor, to the doctor to the police dispatcher, each one of them are given enough depth and enough of a personal story to become distinct individuals. The best part is that they don’t remain static; they also gain depth as the novel progresses and Nate gets to know them.
Most of the secondary characters intersect in one or several ways with the three I’ve already mentioned. John “Professor” Malmont has been in love with Charlene for almost as long as he’s lived in Lunacy. Bing Karlovsky, jack of all trades with a huge chip on his shoulder. Anastasia “just” Hopp, mayor and one of the original Lunatics. Otto Gruber, exMarine and deputy. Ed Woolcott, banker and deputy mayor. Carrie and Max Hawbaker, owners, writers, editors and publishers of the town’s weekly newspaper.
From an acquaintance who lives there, I learned that Ms Roberts got most of the Alaskan stuff right—the weather, the landscape, the people. The big exception would be a scene involving a hot tub in the middle of winter—it would cost a fortune to run, plus probably not doable outside of town unless she lives on top of a gas station.
I said earlier that it feels that the book is mostly Nate’s story, and I think this feeling is intensified because most of the narration is from his point of view. There are a few key scenes by three main characters: the first victim, the killer and Meg, with a couple more passages told from Charlene and the Professor.
One of the things that I found so wonderful about Northern Lights is the pacing, which is deceptively leisurely. One could say that there is little action during the first hundred and fifty pages, and be right. It would also be wrong.
From the short prologue on, there are short passages interspersed through the narration, which tell another, much older, story. And these are overflowing with action, emotion, life. By the time these two narratives intersect, the reader is so caught up with both the characters and the town, that there’s nothing for it but to hang on till the end.
At no time, it would seem, does the pace increase—yet neither does it slow down. Everything that happens, however seemingly unconnected to the main plotline, helps build up the big picture, filling in the little details that bring these characters alive.
Northern Lights is one of my favorites among Ms Roberts’ novels. 9.5 out of 10
*For those of you deprived souls who don’t know what I mean, I would direct you to our most entertaining SmartBitches so that you may edumacate yourselves by reading this and this long, long ago posts.