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Review: Trick Of The Light by Fiona McCallum

Trick Of The Light
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/DMCPR Media

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Erica, newly widowed, is devastated to discover her venture capitalist husband left their finances in ruins. Determined to save her home while protecting her teenage daughters, she vows to get back on her feet without letting them, or anyone else, know the truth.

When her girls head off on a long-planned overseas adventure, Erica focuses on her much-loved job behind a makeup counter to keep her emotionally and financially afloat – although she is troubled by a peculiar encounter at work.

Then she loses her job, the darkness beckons and Erica’s life spirals downwards, further disturbed by strange occurrences in her house. Missing objects. Stopped clocks. Noises in the night. Should she doubt her very sanity? Can she swallow her pride and make herself reach out to her friends in time? Does she have a choice?

A moving story of loss, change and self-discovery from Australia’s master storyteller.

Whilst I thought this book had the chance to tackle some issues that are prominent for women facing financial uncertainty in middle age, unfortunately the way in which it was told meant that I didn’t at all connect with the story or the characters.

This is a very slow moving book. Erica’s husband passes away just before it begins of cancer and she then learns that their finances are not what she expected them to be. The house is heavily mortgaged, he cancelled their insurance policies, there’s nothing in the way of savings or superannuation. Erica does work full time as a make up artist/representative at a department store so whilst she has a steady income, it’s not really at the level that would make her comfortable. For about at least the first third of this story, it’s simply Erica catching the bus to work basically and going through her days, her inner thoughts about her situation and her determination not to tell anyone and to “sort it out herself” almost like it’s her punishment for allowing her husband to solely control their finances all their married life and taking no interest in it.

Erica’s reluctance to confide in either her friends or her (pretty much adult) daughters means that she backs herself into a hard place. The answer to her problem is actually relatively obvious but she’s unable to do it because of her children and the promises she made them before they leave for a gap year overseas. If she’d told them, then she probably wouldn’t have been in such a stressful situation, trying to juggle everything herself. This is something that’s only made worse when she loses her job and then faces unemployment as a woman of almost 50 who although has had steady employment prior to this, has little in the way of marketable skills.

This is a reality for many women, who often have lower paying and less easily-transferable jobs that they take breaks from in order to have and raise children. Unemployment in later years is harder to overcome for women – hard for anyone over a certain age really and if/when a person does find themselves later in life without work, it’s often when the state of debt or commitments are at a high: mortgage, children, car, etc. Benefits aren’t enough for most people to get by as they search for work and the search can be long and fruitless. I imagine the stress would be enormous – and this is something that for some reason, Erica feels she must shoulder all on her own. Even if she doesn’t want to tell her children the bare bones of the situation (there’s ways she could’ve done it without destroying her children’s image of their father), she chooses not to tell any of her close friends either, even her cousin. Someone she’s known her whole life. I found her desire to bear this burden alone a bit baffling, because there’s no real logical explanation for it, nor does it really fulfil any purpose other than Erica deciding she must fix this all on her own. This is revealed as pointless much later in the book where she FINALLY confides in people and they immediately brainstorm to help her solve certain issues, something that honestly could’ve been done much earlier in the story.

There’s also a bit of a mystery element in the latter part of the book, designed to make the reader wonder if Erica might be losing her mind to grief or even going the way of both her parents or maybe a supernatural element but it’s actually quite obvious what’s going on and that’s also something Erica puts her head in the sand about and just chooses to ignore it like it’s not happening or explaining it away with various things that actually make little sense. The conclusion to this was a bit more dramatic than I was expecting but at least it was the catalyst for Erica finally taking control – and by that, I mean actually allowing other people in.

This came to a quiet ending after all that excitement and maybe it’s a duology, like Fiona McCallum’s two previous books ended up being. But for me a lot of the story was very slow in the beginning and possibly could’ve been condensed down a bit and it just made it quite difficult to really get into it. It felt like a good opportunity to really explore financial uncertainty in people who are in middle age, especially a recently widowed woman but a lot of this is really just internal repetitive thoughts and Erica’s day to day routine. It didn’t feel deep enough to me and several of the characters felt awkwardly shoehorned into the plot in a ‘this will be relevant later on’ way. I also never really warmed to Erica as a character to carry this story, she just never seemed to really have much in the way of personality. I know she’s grieving but I could barely tell you a single thing about her: her interests, her desires, her dislikes, her strengths and weaknesses (apart from not knowing what their finances were). I just felt like she never really came across on the page to me.

Not really my sort of story, unfortunately. There are people out there who might appreciate this much more low-key, quieter sort of read but I prefer more proactive main characters and a bit more plot in my reads.

Book #68 of 2021

Trick Of The Light is book #30 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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