History. In one word, that genre—history in the broadest, deepest sense—shines a light on why novelist Peter Golden’s second novel is a gem. Golden’s new novel is titled Wherever There is Light and his content illuminates that title in every way.
It’s not that the novel is what’s popularly known as “a historical novel,” because no one is going to confuse this writer with the authors of sprawling Civil War sagas or Renaissance-era bodice-busters. Nor does Wherever There is Light risk becoming a didactic novel, with its story and characters subservient to a message or to lessons.
Instead, in the tradition of W. Somerset Maugham and Irwin Shaw, what Peter Golden has done is to create vivid, complex, conflicted individual characters who interact in each other’s lives and also have their separate journeys and episodes, all of which are set against the turmoil of a violently changing world, decades ago.
The world re-created in this exquisite, deeply textured narrative takes readers from the 1920s through the 1960s. It’s a story dominated by two star-crossed lovers whose complicated interracial romance evolves and develops (against all odds and obstacles) as the epoch of the Roaring Twenties and then the Great Depression is followed by World War Two, the McCarthy Era ‘50s and the mayhem of the 1960s.
There’s Julian Rose, a young Jewish man who escaped post-World War One Europe and Weimar-era Germany to seek his fortune in America in the 1920s. He will find his fortune via everything from bootleg liquor to real estate profits. He will also find Kendall Wakefield, a young African-American woman whose upbringing by a single mother in South Florida propelled her to pre-World War Two Greenwich Village.
She aspires to be a painter, but eventually emerges as a world-class photographer. He, on the other hand, seeks the ever-elusive “security” that his parents never evinced. Despite their myriad differences, they embark on their on-again off-again decades-long love affair, breaking rules and crossing dangerous boundaries.
Places are as critical in this novel as the “dramatis personae.” And it is in varied places (from South Beach to Harlem, and from Paris to New York, and elsewhere) that the novelist in Golden thrives. His main characters are not merely “types” who pass through certain locales. They are, instead, formed by such legendary realms.
And then they are changed. And after being transformed, they grow and move on.
Here’s how one pivotal milestone is meticulously evoked by Peter Golden:
“Julian was surprised by how much he liked Greenwich Village. The curl of Minetta Street and the sun striking the Japanese maple in Kendall’s backyard. Relaxing in a Morris chair in her apartment and reading before a fire in the cozy gloom of a rainy afternoon. Holding Kendall’s hand and walking the curious twists and turns of the old streets. Seeing the beauty of the old brownstones and townhouses with their wrought-iron railings, and the grand churches, hidden alleyways and courtyards. Reveling in the quiet of their early-morning strolls through Washington Square, with the white marble arch and the sculptures of George Washington reflected in the glassy surface of the fountain. On one of these mornings, Kendall stopped and turned to Julian, resting her hands on his shoulders . . . .”
It’s impossible to not want to see and hear and absorb what they say next or what happens thereafter.
From the politically chaotic and culturally rich milieu of 1938 Greenwich Village to the grim revelations of the concentration camps in 1945 and the unanswerable questions raised by the Nuremberg Trials after the war, history lurks between the lines on each page of this novel. History, complicated lives, and worldwide tremors.
Best of all, in Wherever There is Light, author Peter Golden blends astute plot points with an in-depth probing of his characters’ inner lives, offering to readers a blend of details and drama that are reminiscent of the best of Richard Yates.
(M. J. Moore is finishing a novel titled For Paris ~ With Love & Squalor.)