Ghost Lights
Lydia Millet
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Buy *Ghost Lights* by Lydia Millet online

Ghost Lights
Lydia Millet
W.W. Norton
256 pages
November 2012
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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As Ghost Lights drops us into cloudy Santa Monica and the tortured world of IRS agent Hal, we see how he has come to be the man he is. Millet’s aim is quite clear as the story begins, Hal lamenting the accident which crippled his teenage daughter, Casey, and caused his wife, Susan, to look elsewhere for fulfillment. Hal’s current problems become a catalyst for his decision to fly to Belize in search of Susan’s boss, Thomas “T” Stern, a wealthy real estate investor.

Millet’s tangible story begins to emerge when Susan picks up Stern's dog from a canine sanctuary. Symbolically crippled, the animal’s burden is an early reflection of Hal's fractured emotions. There’s nothing in life that has hurt Hal more than what happened to Casey. The moment of her paralysis has led him into an ever-closed universe beneath the “opaque dome” of her trauma.

Hal loves his wife and has believed up until now that she felt the same way. But there’s a rush of agitation as Susan’s passive ministrations of free love gnaw at him. Metaphorical lights blur and shimmer as Hal questions the nature of his marriage and his relationship with his daughter. An introspective everyman with a deeply philosophical bent, the only way Hal can contain his anger is if he flies far away from Susan to a “strange, almost nonexistent place.”

In Belize, amid fields of dirt, smoke rises from tin-can fires, and Hal transforms into a sunburnt castaway perpetuating the “whole tropical island, spurning-society deal.” Hal befriends two eager German tourists, but he must also endure a long march through the hot, relentlessly wet forest in the search for Stern. Bleary with exhaustion, the enormity and chaos of Hal’s life is finally made real while the mystery of what really happened to T is executed with a Conradian sense of peril.

With insipient precision, Millet exposes Belize's hot, humid atmosphere while Hal struggles to make sense of it all. Before his venture into this small subtropical country, Hal had thought of himself a wimp, but soon we see him as a flawed hero. Hal’s journey into the dark center of this country and his passing thoughts shape Millet’s central themes: the taking of personal responsibility and the search for redemption. In the heavy air and gray smog surrounding Belize City, Hal realizes, like a bolt of lightning but far too late, that the years of his life have been wasted.

Although I thought that you really have to be a parent to fully appreciate this story, I found Millet’s novel precise and esoteric but also rather restrained considering the volatile subject matter. Reading Millet’s scenes, it's impossible not to wonder at the way she sketches in only a few bold strokes Hal’s haunting interior, an inner-life tinged with an ineffable hint of sadness.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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