Although a scene of teenage homophobic bullying made this novel sometimes difficult to read for me, I admire how Altenberg uses Dartmoor and the pastoral fictional village of Mortford as a backdrop to the story of taunted, picked-on Gabe Askew. Marked out as a freak and a target for the “all the other kids,” Gabe’s savior comes in the form of new boy Michael Bradley, who isn’t at all repulsed by the hole running like “a dark gutter” from Gabe’s mouth and into his malformed nose.
Gabe is seduced by Michael and his glamorous mother, Amelie Bradley, with her soft brown hair, doe eyes, and a voice that is different and beautiful and “sings at the end of each word.” Living in the family home of Oakstone, with its strange yet familiar feeling, Michael invites a hesitant Gabe over to stay. Gabe’s own mother is sullen and distant, refusing to tell Gabe about his father who went away before the war and didn’t come back, an absence that Gabe blames on his broken and twisted face.
The song of the river, the rustle of trees, and the smoke blossoming through the hawthorn all become a tangible accent to Michael and Gabe’s friendship, a camaraderie that stretches and tightens throughout the long summer months. They no longer meet at Oakstone but up at the moor and the valley, where Uncle Gerry’s cottage sits irreversibly in the hillside. When Mr. Bradley generously decides to fund an operation to repair Michael’s deformity, the event sets the stage for a terrible reckoning in which boys from the school, led by Jim of Blackaton, exact revenge.
Throughout the story, Altenberg bounces back and forth between Gabe’s youth and his present existence. Now a retired college professor, Gabriel Askew spends his days gardening at “the allotment” while living at Oakstone, a house that has become a barrier keeping him apart from the community. Plagued by nightmares where “bright faces flash in the dark,” we aren’t quite sure what has led Gabe back to Oakstone. In one form or another--whether contemplating or witnessing the aftermath--Gabe must learn to deal with his betrayal of Michael. Since his arrival in Mortford, Gabe is only safe as long as he can manage to keep his mind above “the surface of the pool of memory.”
Other connections appear throughout the story. As Gabe’s aging mind opens itself brutally and unflinchingly to the hidden depths of his own past, Doris Ludgate appears at Oakstone, ostensibly to work as Gabe’s housecleaner. With her white sneakers and arms “that clank a brush hard on the sink,” Doris also has her own secret sorrows--as does Mrs. Sarobi, a transplant from Afghanistan who volunteers at the allotment and strikes up a friendship with Gabe. At first, Doris’s casual racism proves too much for Mrs. Sarobi and for Gabe. However, as Doris’s story unfolds, we begin to see a portrait of a woman with her head in the sand, a woman who has spent her life avoiding knowing her husband’s business. With Gabe Askew back in the village, something (“a sliver of memory from the time before Doris’s fate was sealed”) has made her want to find out more.
Although the story often meanders and at times loses focus, Altenberg does a fine job of portraying friends of a certain age who lose something along the way. The pivotal scene comes about half way through the novel, when Michael and Gabe attend Dr. Buster’s carnival sideshow. The boys enter a maze of mirrors while the doctor waits outside, his terrible smile evidence of “the monster within.” From the carnival “freaks,” two twins joined--Mary and Anne--Gabe sees his mirror image, a face replaced by the face of betrayal. From his lifelong desire for completion, to his search for this missing “other half,” and his hunt for Michael, Gabe constantly suffers under the weight of emptiness. Indeed, all of the characters are afraid of being alone, and all seem to be plagued by missed opportunities of love and desire.
Complex and meditative, this novel isn’t for all tastes, but always interesting is Altenberg’s strong sense of family history and the way we learn to handle the troubling ghosts from the past. In Breaking Light, Altenberg nicely balances these thought-provoking questions and embeds them--along with the beautiful Dartmoor landscapes--deep into the reader's mind.