This book has too many vignettes of ecological disaster for my tastes, but Bray is a fine writer, and she is brilliant in her explorations of the delicate ecosystem of a long marriage: “There was a time in their marriage when talking, like sex, was recreational, a chance to rub their ideas up against each other and experience some relief in the sharing. Now, she [Emma] can’t fathom how to talk without making things worse.”
If When the Lights Go Out culminates in grim fireworks, Bray offers her characters and readers some measure of hope. It is Emma’s vision of modest but meaningful action that triumphs, if not against the rages of a warming planet – which the novel, even as it lays out Chris’s excesses, never looks to downplay – then against despair. And while Bray wisely resists the cheap balm of tidy reconciliation, she does show us the fundaments of a way forward.
“And they lived,” this clear-eyed, wry, wise novel ends. “Not always happily. But they lived.”
With sharp wit, Bray teases out the tiny domestic dramas, identifying the pinch points that can make the most solid relationships briefly or permanently unendurable. Emma’s dead Christmas tree and its improvised replacement – a stepladder covered in fairylights – symbolise her dogged willingness to keep the family traditions alive in the face of indifference and chaos. Bray shows how the most well-regulated household – and the Abrams’ is hardly that – can still tremble on the brink of collapse. What message could be more timely than that?
Returning to the relationship between religion and obsession for When the Lights Go Out, Bray this time tackles the climate crisis through the lens of rigid religious belief. It’s a fresh, topical perspective, told expertly by Bray, a lapsed Mormon herself. There’s plenty of detail and symbolism here, although never at the expense of the plot.
It works on many levels; sanctimonious Chris, fixated on the planet’s problems, fails to recognise those right under his nose, within his own marriage. And the eventual disaster that engulfs everyone is of his doing, not the ozone layer.
While not the most cheerful of reads, it is superb on family dynamics. My favourite character was Janet, a brilliantly ghastly creation.
Bray’s third novel examines the disintegration of a marriage against a backdrop of the climate crisis. When Emma finds her husband, Chris, wearing a sandwich board in the street, trying to raise environmental awareness, her reaction is a mixture of embarrassment, resignation and pity. Chris’s endeavours to avert climate disaster test Emma’s patience and the strength of their relationship in a timely and ruminative novel.
There is no whimsy here. No cheap, easy imagery (crows, I’m talking about you). This is a powerful and truthful story about hope and how to find it. Eschatology with rabbits and needlecraft. It’s intelligent, truly timely and subtly reassuring.