THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT by Betty Palmer Nelson


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Neighboring territory, in a sense, to Nelson's engaging first novel, Private Knowledge (1990), which dealt with both the settlers and the settled in mid-19th-century Tennessee as they struggled with some private manifest destinies. Some characters in the first novel appear in Nelson's solid second. In letters and episodes, touching upon various lives at varied times, the author presents generally decent and essentially innocent lives harshly dealt with--by circumstance, by crimping legacies from the past, and, for women, by the mores of a double standard. Matthew Nolan, who was raised with sister Ellen in a charitable New Orleans orphanage, has risen to the somewhat stable and respected station of a Tennessee town storekeeper. Matthew will be foxed by a cheerfully rapacious widow; he'll also lose Lena, daughter of educated Hames Forster, to a bitter spinsterhood and be tortured by her hatred. At one point, Matthew--young, idealistic, loyal to Ellen (who fled to a haven in Texas, away from an abusive husband)--discusses Plato, Greek plays, and in particular Justice, with Hames, and declares: ""It's hard to know where the evil stops and starts."" Indeed, it seems so. Lena is almost defeated by madness and murder. Yet sometimes with others tragedy stops at the doorstep. Young Julie's mother was deserted by her husband (abuse, callousness, and desertion are common here), and Julie herself must confront the knowledge that her husband Jake has been sleeping with her sister, the flighty wife of Lena's brother. The family--and Jake--agree that Julie should shoot him dead. But.... Nelson creates a community of mainly resilient people, whose falls are thunderous and whose triumphs are robustly satisfying. Also, by the use of faintly formal diction, she adds a patina of the past. A gritty chronicle, atmospheric and convincing.

Pub Date: April 16th, 1992
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: St. Martin's