Where Light Meets Water
Simon & Schuster, $32.99 pb, 400 pp
Susan Paterson’s first novel, Where Light Meets Water, offers readers the various pleasures of the traditional Bildungsroman. Spanning the years 1847 to 1871, it centres on the life of Thomas Rutherford, a man torn between devotion to his work as a mariner and an abiding passion for painting seascapes. The predominant use of an omniscient narrator provides unfettered access to his conflicted inner life and, less frequently, to that of his spirited wife Catherine. The vivid depiction of a host of global settings, including London, the markets of Calcutta, Melbourne during the gold rush, and an increasingly prosperous Dunedin, adds to the effect of a densely particularised and amplified world. Immersive and absorbing, the novel is a triumph of the old-fashioned art of verisimilitude.
Tom’s story exemplifies the Victorian enthusiasm for the concept of the self-made man. After fifteen arduous years at sea, he advances from cabin boy to ship’s captain. In later life, he achieves modest success as a painter, a talent encouraged in his youth by an artistically inclined mother. Self-made women are, of course, a much rarer occurrence in Victorian England. Catherine’s serious ambitions as a painter are unfulfilled, while future public recognition of her experimental art will depend on male patronage. Homosexuality, too, remains unspoken, and must be kept hidden from public scrutiny. Since realism as a genre is required to acknowledge the social and political realities of its time and place, such limits on choice and agency add to the novel’s credibility.