When I found this collection of magical realism vignettes, I was certain that I would love it like I did Like Water for Chocolate and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Instead, the thirteen short stories left me wanting – though for exactly what, I cannot articulate. Coming of age, parental relationships, death and feeling trapped were recurring themes, and Anne Valente explores them with an abundance of symbolism. But I was often left wondering what it is that she actually wants to evoke with the sometimes bizarre supernatural elements.
We have girls turning into bears in Dear Amelia, and while I appreciated the ideas of indignant hope, of shame and loneliness, of fighting against the inevitable, the final message of burrowing into dens and ignoring it all failed to strike any emotional chord. On the other hand, To a Place Where We Take Flight and Terrible Angels had poignant passages, but were otherwise unremarkable. The plot developments were not particularly original, nor were the perspectives presented by the protagonists. In fact, much of the book was similarly unmemorable, beyond the persistent irritation half the characters seemed to ignite in me. Kate in If Everything Fell Silent, Even Sirens was especially maddening – I felt no empathy for her inability to be self-aware and consequent violence or her petty attempts at rebelliousness, regardless of whether her father’s death precipitated them. I am by no means suggesting that characters must be likeable for a book to be good. Perfect characters are just as bland as critically flawed ones are infuriating. But it is the delicate science of identifying relatable vices and insecurities that enables readers to become invested.
I enjoyed Minivan and Latchkey the most, and while the former was a heartrendingly raw account of abuse and recovery, the writing in the latter felt laboured at times. Sasha’s predisposition to sighing and suggesting such absurd contents of her unopened gift as “maybe it’s an army … a tiny army of lop-eared rabbits” bordered on pretentiously profound. Of course, it is precisely the matter-of-fact inclusion of magical elements that puts a work on the ‘magical realism’ shelf. But it was evident that the character herself did not believe in the possibility of her own statements. In fact, the label ‘magical realism’ is misleading – most of the stories were incredibly realistic, but without any magic at all. This would not have mattered much if By Light We Knew Our Names was marketed properly. But as it were, I felt confused and slightly cheated.
I decided to give this book a try only long after the hype had died down. I still do not find the lush lyricism or idiosyncratic voice. If I were looking for exquisite prose, I would personally turn to another Valente instead. But that is not to say that By Light We Knew Our Names was a completely uninteresting read. Many rated it a five-star book, after all. It was sometimes frustrating and other times throwaway, but the short stories were mostly solid works with clear potential. I just wish Anne Valente fleshed out her explorations of these universally emotive themes more completely.