Toward the Light by Bonnar Spring

Reviewed by James Eaton

This is a well-written book that, for the most part, impresses and engages, and here and there, strains credulity.

I suppose I’d also label it something of a slow burn, so as thrillers go, not substantially thrilling unless you put in the time. So put in the time. Patience rewards here.

Note: If you have seen and worshipped “The Princess Bride” as I have, you might need to take a pill to wipe Inigo Montoya from your memory banks, or you may find that wry swordsman haunting you, particularly at points in the story where I’m sure the writer of this novel did not envision invoking Mandy Patinkin.

Now that that’s out of the way, I will say that I, ultimately, enjoyed “Toward the Light.” The details, always in abundance, were essential to the illustration of the Guatemalan setting. I don’t feel, having just finished the book, that I’ve been to Guatemala, but I am quite sure the characters lived their lives and made their choices there, and that is what matters.

So setting and description: Working well.

And the characters are all distinct and believable and just complicated enough to affirm as well-conceived and worthy. Luz, Richard, Evan, Martin, Bobby, Alicia, Cesar, Juana, Tono (sorry, no tilde on this keyboard), Dominga: all were real, all were breathing and wanting and scheming and thinking and worrying and doing, according to their ascribed lives and goals. I saw them, I heard them, and I did not question their authenticity. I very much wanted to see Dr. Guzman reach America, and for some reason I really wanted to eat oranges, and I wanted that boy to be okay beyond his math homework and DVD’s.

I initially thought of this novel in this way: a simple tale about a girl who was making a terrible but brave and conclusory choice, a boy who gets entangled with her despite his best intentions, and a country that has suffered at the hands of some very greedy and evil people. So, maybe not so far from “the Princess Bride” after all, come to think of it…

But then the plot thickens, and Spring thickens it with a skilled touch. Allegiances unravel, motivations are revealed, and rather than a fairy tale dressed in black and white, we get a fair helping of gray—and in novels like these, gray is by far and away the most intriguing color of all.

To review the plot and give specifics to support my observations would be lethal to any potential reader’s attempt at discovering and exploring this novel, so I will of course will refrain from spoilerizing. (Is that a word? Sure. Let’s make it a word. Don’t ask me to translate it in Spanish). Still, the novel is worth the delving because the complexity of the tale is satisfactory and even compelling. We don’t know what we don’t know. People die. People long. People lie. We begin to see. And while it’s not, say, “the Sixth Sense” for the pow-wow-zow of reveals, what seems to begin as a sort of Nancy Drew installment heads down a more Jack Ryan-type avenue.

And there is functional forgiveness and decency, some of it somewhat difficult to reconcile but none of it out of leftfield or impossible to justify. Nothing is truly solved—greed and evil are like weeds, are they not?—yet there is resolution. Plus, Christmas Eve in Guatemala sounds fun. And sweet.

If there was anything missing here, perhaps it was a deeper perusal of Guatemalan culture and socio-political underpinnings, but then, such dalliances would almost certainly have adversely affected the pacing. Still, the setting and the players made me curious, and the occasion aside for semi-pedantic reflection on the bigger picture might have worked. One cannot say.

Additionally, if someone is to forgive and abandon a lifelong something with someone, I need something more in the form of the why why why. As they say in North Conway, a machete is still a machete…

Vague enough for ya? Sorry: I’m honoring my promise to spoil nothing.