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Description - The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood

Winner of the Australian/Vogel's Literary Award 2002.

And as the waves take her apart, piece by piece, she watches the message of the lighthouse spelling itself out on the surface of the water. Its message is composed in the alphabet of light and dark. Flash, eclipse, flash, eclipse. If we see only the light, we are blinded; only the dark and we will never find our way.

A tiny coin found inside a Cloudy Bay oyster, a postcard of a white-haired child leaning against a beached dinghy and a coconut peeled and carved once upon a time on the Batavian coast. These trinkets, found in a sea chest, and the fragmented memories of her grandfather's tall tales are all Essie Lewis has left of her family history.

After her grandfather's death, Essie returns to Bruny Island, Tasmania and to the lighthouse where her great-great-grandfather kept watch for nearly 40 years. Beneath the lighthouse, she begins to write the stories of her ancestors. But the island is also home to Pete Shelverton, a sculptor who hunts feral cats to make his own peace with the past. And as Essie writes, she finds that Pete is a part of the history she can never escape.

'Absorbing, subtle, impressive writing.' - Debra Adelaide

'Wood's writing is sinewy, physical and elemental.' - Liam Davison

'Its lyrical probing of several dimensions of Australian/Tasmanian experience make it a fitting recipient for this award. Wood's achievement in her sustained evocation of the bleak Bruny Island landscape and the surrounding seascape is tremendously potent and effective.' - Stella Clarke

'The author has that special quality which just jumps off the page. The voice is strong and the sense of place so powerful.' - James Bradley

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Book Details

ISBN: 9781741140651
ISBN-10: 174114065X
Format: Paperback / softback
(195mm x 130mm x mm)
Pages: 348
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 1-Aug-2003
Country of Publication: Australia

Book Reviews - The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood

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Book Review: Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood - Reviewed by (30 Nov 2018)

5 stars

The Alphabet of Light and Dark is the first novel by award-winning Australian author, Danielle Wood. Bruny Island, a comma that follows the Island of Tasmania in the Southern Ocean, has a lighthouse that used to warn ships of treacherous reefs and rocks (now replaced by an automated beacon on the point). While Pete Shelverton waits to find out if he’s going back to Macquarie Island to help reduce the feral cat population, he’ll clean and polish inside it once a week. Essie Lewis is spending twelve weeks in the adjacent Lightkeepers’ Quarters II because there’s family history in the lighthouse about which she wants to write.

Essie’s beloved grandfather, Charlie Westwood, has died, and she has just a small seaman’s chest of papers, photos and familiar objects, and her memories of his tales: “The great web of Charlie’s stories, in her memory, is a net full of holes. ‘I have repairs to make.’ How can she stitch them back together, these solid things, using only the fragile wisps of story she has left?”

Pete is still smarting from a broken relationship: “Now he has to try to do his forgetting here, on another island. But there’s no walking like that any more, and he’s so fit there’s hardly anything he can do that hurts enough, that makes enough pain to fill every last cul-de-sac of his mind… The only thing that gives him any relief is this pile of metal. He doesn’t sleep much. He spends his nights out here in the shed with the blue breath of the welder, the flow of molten metal, connecting piece to piece.”

Wood uses three narrative strands: the present day’s events are told from both Essie’s and Pete’s perspectives; Essie’s fictionalised history of her grandfather’s grandfather, Superintendent of the Cape Bruny Lightstation for almost forty years, comes from Alva, his daughter. The story moves at a sedate pace, as Wood establishes her main protagonists. Both are locals, returning to Bruny after years away, and it is only at the halfway point that they encounter each other again.

Both Pete and Essie are somewhat solitary figures, and neither of them is entirely comfortable in company. But still, “Lying there in the black and quiet, Essie feels her aloneness, and wonders how far in each direction a line would travel before it met another person. She wonders how great is the diameter of her solitude. This night, it feels vast.”

Wood's descriptive prose is often exquisite, and likely to engender a desire to see and touch Pete’s sculptures and Charlie’s saved objects. People, too, are wonderfully portrayed: “Her Grandma’s love was smooth as cream, it was a tide that flowed out over everyone evenly. Friends, relatives, the babies in their mothers’ arms in supermarket queues, stray cats and dogs. But Charlie was a hard bastard as far as the world was concerned, and the softness he held in store for his granddaughter was one of the only things Essie possessed all for herself.”

Wood gives the reader a plot that is easily believable, dialogue that is natural and a conclusion full of hope. Of her characters Charlie is likely to be a stand out favourite, larger than life, which is not surprising as he is inspired by Wood's own grandfather, as is the great great grandfather of the story. Both have very human flaws, as do most of the characters, who nonetheless have plenty of appeal. Evocative and moving, this is a brilliant debut novel.

Author Biography - Danielle Wood

Danielle Wood was born in Hobart in 1972. Danielle has an arts degree (with honours) from the University of Tasmania, and is completing a PhD through Edith Cowan University. She has worked as a journalist with newspapers in Hobart and Perth, as a producer with ABC Radio in Perth and Broome, and as a media officer for Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service. Highlights of her career include sailing on the tall ship Eye of the Wind and travelling to Macquarie Island with ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions). She lives in Hobart and The Alphabet of Light and Dark is her first novel.

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