Book Review: Glendy Vanderah’s “The Light Through the Leaves”

Having finished the witty, light-hearted joys of The Thursday Murder Club, I decided for my next book I was more inclined towards a thought-provoking, heavy novel. One I had been putting off for a while immediately came into mind: The Light Through the Leaves. Having read a couple of glowing reviews for her previous novel – Where the Forest Meets the Stars – when I stumbled across her newest release while guiltily browsing Amazon for yet more books (knowing full well I have plenty of books to read still on my shelf), I quickly added it to my basket, my shallow-side a little pleased that the hardback-cover was so beautiful.

From the blurb – which detailed the disappearance of a baby girl, and the subsequent fracturing of relationships and lives as consequence – I knew it would be a deep and involved kind of book… which is perhaps why it kept getting relegated in favour of other books on my “to-read” list. During the work week, I tend to read in the evenings as a way to wind down, and thrillers or light-hearted novels are usually best for that. But to cut to the chase, I finally got around to giving this one a go… And it was very much worth it!

The Plot…

Vanderah wasted no time with the initial catalyst: right from Chapter one, the story commences with a heart-breaking event, and every parents’ worst nightmare. Ellis, a young Mum of three children under the age of five – two toddlers, and a baby girl named Viola, a little over 2 months old – is out one day in the forest, collecting tadpoles from the river bed with her kids, desperately trying to clear her head following the accidental discovery of her husband’s infidelity. Hopelessly distracted – both emotionally, and with two fussing toddlers demanding her attention – Ellis makes the biggest mistake of her life, and one that would haunt her forever, racking her with inconceivable guilt and grief. She leaves Viola in the parking lot.

Realising her fatal error within minutes of pulling away from her sleeping baby in her carrier, Ellis races back, only to find Viola gone, abducted by a stranger in the short time she was left unattended. The proceeding plot centres around Ellis’ chaotic journey with grief and acceptance, which forces her to leave her family in order to heal separately, embarking on a new, treacherous path toward healing. The overarching detail branded on her memory from that devastating day in the woods where someone took her daughter was the sound of a raven’s caw.

States away in Washington, a young girl’s narration is also told: her name is Raven.

This may seem like a bit of a spoiler, but rest assured that it is painfully obvious from the start that Raven is baby Viola; not only is it fairly predictable from the context, but there are numerous blatant hints and near-confirmations: the author wants the reader to know that this is the stolen baby. From this perspective, the reader learns how Viola has lived in the years since her ‘Mama’ – Audrey – took her, asleep in her carrier, believing her to be a gift from the Raven calling from above: the baby she had always wished for. Daughter of Raven. Manipulated with rituals, strange beliefs, and an almost-religion centring around earth spirits and a mistrust of society, Raven lives in isolation, completely cut-off and sheltered from the outside world. That is until she meets a group of young boys playing in the woods on her land at aged 7. From there, it is a long, confusing journey to the truth; to the lies she has been fed her whole life, and to finding some form of closure and healing, much like Ellis all those miles away.

The Characters…

The main characters in this book are – of course – Ellis and Raven, both of whom make interesting and engaging characters to read along with. Out of the two, Ellis is perhaps the more polarising, her decisions could easily be viewed as selfish or cruel – many would resent the choice she makes in leaving her two young sons, already fragile from the loss of their baby sister. But the reality is that kind of grief is paralysing, and hard to even envision. People handle it differently – and for Ellis – her only option was to leave, believing she was responsible for everything and her presence would only exacerbate matters and ruin the lives of her boys even further. Confronting the trauma of her past, her current heart-breaking reality and own culpability, battling addiction and depression, and withstanding further trauma from her experiences travelling alone out in nature, one thing become undeniably clear: Ellis is an extremely strong and courageous character; one which I became particularly fond of.

Echoing the nature of her biological Mother, Raven is also impressively resilient, having endured a far from ideal upbringing, lived with the unpredictability of another’s mental illness, and – sadly – only known isolation. Despite everything, Raven seems well-adjusted, kind and thoughtful, and incredibly loyal, both to the woman she calls ‘Mama’ and to the friends she meets that summer’s day in the woods. In that respect, this book is a wonderful display of friendship: from the age of 7 right through to her late teens, these boys are her best friends, fiercely protective of her. One of the boys – Jackie – becomes Raven’s whole world; his Mother and their house becoming a safe haven.

Equally, Ellis also has touching friendships that evoke the same sense of strong loyalty and unconditional love. One is her best friend from college – who despite the lack of contact – drops everything to come to Ellis’ need when required on more than one occasion. The other is Keith – a park ranger she met after the loss of Viola while traveling and camping. Again – despite the things she conceals from him and the time they drift apart – he is always there for her: Jackie and Keith are one of the many parallels that can be drawn between the narration of Raven and her Mother, Ellis.

Would I recommend?

A heavy read? Yes. Demands a lot of thought and emotional responses? Yes. Worth reading? Absolutely.

I loved this book – and while it did have a particularly heart-wrenching beginning and pretty dark themes – I liked that it wasn’t all sorrow and despair; it was mostly a journey toward healing, acceptance, and peace for both characters, connected in so many ways. I won’t reveal too much about the ending to avoid spoilers, but I will say that it was a touching, warming kind of ending, and one that gave me closure and my own degree of peace – if that’s something you like from a book, then I would 100% recommend!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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