Grappling with his son’s death, the painter David explores his grief through art and writing, etching out the rippled landscape of his loss.
Over twenty years after his son’s death, nearly blind and unable to paint, David turns to writing to examine the deep shades of his loss. Despite his acute pain, or perhaps because of it, David observes beauty in the ordinary: in the resemblance of a woman to Egyptian portraits, in the horseshoe crabs that wash up on Coney Island, in the foam gathering behind a ferry propeller; in these moments, González reveals the world through a painter’s eyes. From one of Columbia’s greatest contemporary novelists, Difficult Light is a formally daring meditation on grief, written in candid, arresting prose.
The highlight of Difficult Light by Tomás González is the way his narrator, David, describes his world. His lifetime painting has shaped the way he sees the world. He describes the painting he was working on when his son died—a ferry—by writing, “The emerald color of the painted water was pale, superficial, I thought, like a piece of spear-mint flavored candy.” His eye comes through in the way he talks about color, stacking modifiers to get the image in his reader’s mind just right before he adds the synesthesia at the end. The little taste of candy at the end adds another sense and dimension, to the description, popping it off the page.
These descriptions are a joy, parceled throughout a book that intentionally is not one. As he writes, David is in the late stages of a particularly nasty macular degeneration that prevents him from painting. Instead, he funnels his creative energies into recording the day leading up to the death of his son Jacobo, which, he says at the end of the first chapter, “We’d scheduled for seven that night, Portland time, ten o’clock New York.” The line is a strong hook. It makes you question what kind of death would be scheduled and why.
While his son is in Portland, David is in their New York City apartment. González captures the city’s essence, especially in a scene where David is wandering the streets alone in the night and splits a 40 with a Russian who sells records from his bicycle.
Translator Andrea Rosenberg does excellent work, rendering this scene and González’s wonderful prose. It is impossible to say whether something was lost as the story changed languages, but if anything is missing, this story is better for it.
Difficult Light is a powerful, concise story that shows how, “joy always, or almost always, sprouts like a piece of wood in water, no matter the depth of the horror a person has experienced.”
Difficult Light is scheduled to be released August 11, 2020.