In The Strength of the Sun, character Patrick Mercer states, “‘My point is: a book can provide a link to other lives, a window to another time. It can illuminate the past.’” And in the case of Catherine Chidgey’s novel, this book has done just that.
Patrick Mercer, a curator at a university museum in England, left his wife in 1988, the day after the solar eclipse. Through Patrick’s love and knowledge of the history of manuscripts and the occasional myth, Chidgey incorporates interesting tidbits about those topics throughout the novel. After driving his car off a bridge and into the river, Patrick suddenly finds himself in a hospital. As Patrick drifts in and out of consciousness, snatches of childhood memories fill his dreams while friends read to him from his bedside.
The day of the eclipse turned out to be a life-changing one for the Pearse family, when 15-year-old Laura went missing in New Zealand. She set out to watch the eclipse from the wind turbine, never to be seen again. Six years after her disappearance, her parents, Ruth and Malcolm, give birth to a son, Daniel, who appears to have special needs. Ruth and Malcolm go through the motions of living, each in their own way, the grief and loss of their daughter never completely leaving them. Author Catherine Chidgey’s most powerful portion of the novel comes through in the story of the Pearse family and their loss, a story that pierces the heart.
And then there is Colette, a twenty-one-year-old who wants nothing more than to be out on her own, far away from her mother. She yearns to shed the clutter of the past and spread her own wings. Her mother, on the other hand, wants only to hold on tightly to everything possible, surrounding herself with memories and objects.
The book opens with a letter Colette receives from the friends of Patrick Mercer, a form letter describing his health, promising future updates, and encouraging correspondence to Patrick whether by tape or letter so that he can hear from those out there who care about him. Colette has not a clue who Patrick is, searching her memories, imagining he might be someone she met on a trip overseas.
It is from there that the seemingly unrelated pieces of a puzzle begin to fit together to form a complete portrait. Chidgey successfully integrates the past with the present. The narrative flows back and forth in time, the lives of the various characters at first appearing to be separate but coming together in unexpected ways. On a more personal level, the characters themselves seem to gravitate toward being alone, being separate, only to be drawn together and feeling the need to connect with others as the novel progresses.
The author’s descriptive style flows smoothly for the most part, with only a slow moment here and there. The Strength of the Sun, as a novel about love and loss as well as the connectedness and distance between people, is well worth taking the time to read.