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Growing Up Is Hard To Do

April 22, 2011

Bright Before Us (A Tin House New Voice)Bright Before Us by Katie Arnold-Ratliff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

       I like when authors take me hostage right out of the gate and don’t let me go until they’ve had their way with me. That’s what Katie Arnold-Ratliff does in her debut novel “Bright Before Us.” The story begins: “We hadn’t expected it; the sky had been clear.” That’s ominous. I want to read more and as I do I watch while teacher Francis Mason discovers a dead body on a San Francisco beach. But it gets worse; he’s got his second-grade class with him.
       This moment of unexpected darkness on an otherwise unexceptional day sends Francis, the young, newly-minted teacher, on a downward spiral into an abyss of shifting realities. Paranoia, grief and confusion sidle up to him and shake him silly. He has that moment of realization when you’ve graduated from college, started your first adult job and are settling into a “real” relationship when you wonder: How did I get here? Did I pick the wrong profession? Who is this woman and why am I about to have a baby with her?
       For Francis, the incident of finding the body catapults him into an examination of his fixation with an unrequited love from his past as well as his dysfunctional upbringing. Nora was his friend growing up and then the object of his love obsession. There are problems with his current wife, Greta, with whom he’s expecting a baby. He also is second-guessing his career choice as a teacher where he feels inept. Suddenly, fleeing the whole mess starts to look like the only option. Arnold-Ratliff builds an interesting plot structure by alternating each chapter with the present and then the past. It creates a powerful narrative momentum that makes the book hard to put down. You need to know why he ended up held captive by a past full of mistakes and whether he will continue to make mistakes.
       Another compelling aspect was Francis’ continuing shifts into what can only be described as altered states of deep paranoia. He reaches that sort of high-adrenaline state when perception changes slightly fueling his growing fears and insecurities. Is he a bad teacher? Is he ready to be a husband and a parent? Does he have what it takes to move forward? Up until the point when he finds the body, Francis seems to have let life happen to him and then has ridden out the consequences. He lives “the examined life” but he doesn’t put the self-knowledge he gains to any good use – at first.
       “Bright Before Us” is a brilliant look at the process required of Francis to realize he must take responsibility for past choices and take charge of choices to come. The reader rides along for his transformation into adulthood as he learns that his past love is more delusion than anything else. Arnold-Ratliff lets us know that the life you get is not often the life you think you should have but it can turn out to be the life that you need to survive. I was happy for the reminder.

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