3 July 2012

Terry Kay: The Year the Lights Came On (1976)

Some reviews have described this as a coming-of-age book, which it certainly is, although William J. Scheick's twelve-page Afterword in this Brown Thrasher Books (University of Georgia Press) edition seems to be talking about a more complex novel than is often the case in the genre.

The Year the Lights Came On (1976) was Terry Kay's first novel and is set in north-east Georgia where he was born in 1938, and Kay has obviously drawn on a few geographical elements to create this non-autobiographical work. Most of the novel takes place in 1947, and the eleven-year-old Colin Wynn is the first person narrator with the other main characters still of school age. Colin belongs to the Our Side Gang, whose homes don't have electricity, although the nearby families with children in the Highway 17 Gang do, and there is constant rivalry between them. But in 1947 Colin's community will be visited by the Rural Electricity Administration (REA) to introduce electric power, which of course will be a major change to those families whose homes have hitherto been lit by kerosene lamps.

Most of the events in the book concern the conflicts between the  young people in the 'have' and the 'have-not' gangs before REA finishes its work at the end, and this includes the superficially transgressive but sexually innocent love affair between the route-crossed lovers Colin and Megan.

The above word 'transgressive' is relevant to other areas because, as Scheick notes, boundaries are important in this novel: not just geographical or social, but there are limits transcribed by age and technology – how much time and science give, and how much they take away.

The coming of electricity to a hitherto kerosene-lit, battery-operated society brings loss as well as gain, and as the two societies homogenize, Colin realizes that greater comfort has replaced the intangible security of isolation.

But the changes experienced in a person's life aren't only technological: life itself is movement, but in which direction? The more we move into the future, the more past we have, and the less future there remains. However, there's a tendency for us to want to retain that escaping past, perhaps at the expense of living in the future. As Colin's elder brother Wesley used to say, and which becomes the final sentence of the book: 'The problem with walking backward, is that you only see where you've been'. The most interesting character in the book is Dover, an adult who seems to have resolved this paradox by refusing to grow up, and he lives in a timeless, much freer world. This is how Colin describes it:

'He was all of Yesterday, all of Today, all of Tomorrow, bits and pieces of all he had been, all he was, all he would ever be.'

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