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Review: Out Of The Light Of Darkness by Edward M. Donnelly

This small collection consists of six very short stories and a novella. The stories are linked by theme: death, madness, forgiveness, love. It’s primal stuff, and Donnelly handles his material gently, almost reverently. The first six stories are very short, very lean, almost ghost-like. And indeed the quiet dead figure largely in these stories, as do the unhappy and angry living. However, not much is resolved, or even really explored, in these first few stories. They are almost like snapshots or sketches of people trying unsuccessfully to reach out and connect with one another, whether across a table in a beer joint or across the divide between life and death.

“Phoebe” is the story of a young girl who killed herself after not being accepted in her new country. We learn almost nothing of Phoebe beyond the basics. Her story is told from the outside, from a distance. In “Roses In Darkness,” a man recalls someone he met as a child, only understanding this person after the distance of many years and several deaths. In “Smoke,” a college student and his father try to communicate over a beer and a  smoke. Nothing much is said, nothing much understood.

The final story, a novella (though I’m actually not sure if it is long enough or involved enough to qualify as a novella), brings all the themes together in an orgasmic closure that manages to foreground the difficulties of communication and connection that have haunted the other stories, while at the same time quietly announcing the redeeming power of love.

The themes in these stories are subtle and handled with great delicacy. It seems as if the stories, like the shy ghosts and angry fathers that populate them, must be handled with great care if one is not to drive them away. Even the climax of the final story is slipped in when you aren’t quite expecting it, as if you must look—now, quickly—and then turn away. These ideas must not be looked at too directly, lest you lose them.

The book is illustrated with lovely photographs, which, unlike the stories, are very bright and sharply focused. I loved the photography and found the pictures a soothing contrast from the almost disturbing vagueness that haunts the stories.

Out Of The Light Of Darkness is smoothly written and well-edited; it is an easy read. Yet when I came to the end, I realized that this was deceptive. The themes worked here are both subtle and powerful. It would pay the reader to go back, after reading the final story, and read the first six again to see how their themes culminated in the final tale.

I was confused by one thing. Some of the characters seem to recur, but the names are off. The father seems to be the same in several stories, including the final one, but the son changes. There are several other minor details and characters that almost, but not quite, match from story to story. At first I thought this was just sloppiness on the part of the author, but after reading the final story, I realized that this is just one more way the stories work. In this collection, the characters are the same and they are not the same. The living are dead and the dead are living. These stories seem to suggest that there are many possibilities in life, many choices, and they all lead to the same place in the end. Whether this is a good place or a bad place is a matter of how you interpret the story of life as it unfolds.

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