Where the Light Gets In is Zoë Coyle’s debut novel and, much like its protagonist, it’s messy. Delphi is 26, living in London, and her life is just starting to slot into place. She’s met a guy and, after struggling to find a job after art school, has just had a really promising interview. Then her terminally ill mother calls with the words she’s been dreading – it is time. Delphi drops everything to head to Tasmania and fulfil her pledge to help her mother die on her own terms.
It’s a promising premise, but ultimately the book doesn’t live up to its potential. Part of the problem is that Coyle tries to pack in too much. On top of the euthanasia storyline is a checklist of the self-destructive young woman in modern literature. There’s experimentation with drugs, casual sex, a broken family with a traumatic backstory and even a run-in with a cult.
Unfortunately, none of these ideas is explored with any depth. The ethics of euthanasia is threaded throughout the story but is only probed superficially. Delphi’s mother’s reasons for wanting to end her life are given little space, presented more as a generic list of why someone would want the option of euthanasia rather than why she specifically has decided this. Fiction offers the opportunity for readers to feel rather than be simply told facts; here it’s difficult to engage with the emotion of the topic because the author’s hand is all too present.
Coyle doesn’t trust her readers to piece things together, which is a recurring issue throughout the novel. Once a plot point or piece of characterisation is dropped, it is repeated and then explained. “Father and daughter stand awkwardly together. The literal space between them indicating the figurative.” There is no reading between the lines in Where the Light Gets In – everything is spelled out.
The novel follows Delphi as she moves from earnest conversation to earnest conversation. When dialogue is not marked, it is often impossible to tell who is speaking as every character’s voice is almost the same, from childhood friends to the cult leader she encounters. Despite the book’s length, many significant moments feel oddly rushed, with most of the text instead taken up with long descriptions and cultural references. This is a novel about a woman’s journey towards self-knowledge but unfortunately much of the book’s “wisdom” is achieved through the exchange of half-baked platitudes.
Where the Light Gets In is ambitious but falls short.
Ultimo Press, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Where the Light Gets In, Zoë Coyle".
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