Updated: Jan 17
Thanks to Scholastic Trade Publishing for providing an advanced copy for the purposes of review.
It seems that 2019 is shaping up to be a fantastic year for publisher Scholastic. Coming off the late January release of Shaun Tan’s tour de force Cicada, which we described as “a breath of fresh air for the picture book genre with its boundary-defiant nature” in our review, Lisa Thompson’s The Light Jar is similarly a brilliant book that focuses on its psychological and philosophical elements while presenting them in a charming and crowd-pleasing manner. It pushes the envelope for its genre, becoming a defining trait of author Thompson, and is such a joy to behold, especially after a year where publishers seemed to be anything but daring. It may not totally eradicate its wasted plot elements and threads, but thanks to a relatable main protagonist in Nate, who Thompson smartly uses to depict the book’s primary themes, it’s still investing, despite the narrative hiccups. Serving as a thought-provoking meditation on the themes of domestic violence through the lens of a young boy, The Light Jar is a stirring work that may not be the smoothest in its execution, but still remains as a resonant thrill.
Told from the perspective of Nate, an eleven-year-old who is with his mother and heading to a mysterious cottage, the story centers around the strange disappearance of Nate’s mother and his psychological degradation that spreads in his panic. Needless to say, the return of a forgotten friend and the introduction of a new one brings him back into the light. The story that Thompson presents is one full of intrigue and surprises. When Nate is first introduced, his situation is very murky and unclear, an intentional choice on part of the writer. But slowly, his backstory is doled out in riveting flashback sequences portrayed as dialogue. Whilst in other books, this decision could prove annoying as exposition dialogue always proves to be a massive hiccup for most authors. But here, and especially since the backstories of the characters are shrouded in so much mystery, its use feels natural and intriguing, adding on to the already fascinating stories that Thompson has layered into these characters. The dialogue was chockful of suspense, gravity, and stakes. Personally, there was a never single sequence of backstory dialogue where I wasn’t engaged, a massive feat that hasn’t been accomplished in a long time.
The character of Nate is another massive accomplishment. Even when the story disengaged me at that times, mostly due to its over bloated middle act, the character and relatability of Nate always prevented me from entirely hitting the eject button. His character is introduced as instantly interesting as he encounters these events as any eleven-year-old would, and some of his sequences even brought a haunting déjà vu feeling from my own childhood. He isn’t instantly a shining knight in armor, who is able to accomplish ridiculous feats with little consequence. Nate is constantly established as a character with mistakes, mistakes that do eventually come back to haunt him. In fact, the same could be said for the rest of the entire roster of characters. While some of the characters I will not mention for fear of spoilers, some of the highlights include Nate’s mother and Gary, an increasingly intriguing character as the book carries on. This roster proves the talent Thompson as a writer, in her ability to develop characters who are anything but ingenuous or unrealistic.
Character-wise, the biggest risk Thompson takes, that is somewhat successful, is the character of Kitty. The plot thread that she and Nate share is sometimes insufferable, mostly due to its lack of necessity to the overarching plot. However, thanks to a final reveal at the closing of the book, her involvement becomes integral, but I wish there was more motivation for readers to trudge on in these indulgent and bloated middle act sequences.
As for the themes, never before have they been so prevalent in a middle grade novel. Intense and potentially controversial themes such as domestic abuse and violence are explored through Nate’s backstory, resulting in what is the most exciting and interesting element of the entire piece. Whilst Thompson was clearly strained by the genre’s and publisher’s demands, just how far she is able to push it proves exciting all on its own, bolstering the story with so much more tension.
Coming off such a notable success in The Goldfish Boy, The Light Jar solidifies Lisa Thompson’s position as one of the most impressive children’s writers working today. Blending high-staked and consequential suspense with daring themes and messages, The Light Jar is an enjoyable work that isn’t narratively perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Some of its middle act sequences lack genuine worth to the overarching plot, making their inclusion unwieldy at best. But these issues fade into the background thanks to the book’s explosive final act. Satisfying and bold, The Light Jar is truly a beam of light in what has become a fantastic kickoff to 2019 for publisher Scholastic.
Score: 8.4 out of 10
Nate and his mother are running away. Fleeing from an emotionally abusive situation, they hide out in an abandoned cottage in the middle of a forest. Though it's old and run-down, at least it's a place of their own.
Then Nate's mother heads off for groceries and doesn't return. Has she run into trouble, or simply abandoned him? He is left alone and afraid, with the dark closing in on him.
But comfort can come from the most unexpected of places: like a strange girl trying to solve the mystery of a treasure hunt, and the reappearance of a friend from his past. Will Nate find the bravery he needs to face down his fears, survive on his own, and ultimately illuminate his future?
The Light Jar is a captivating story of fear and hope, loneliness and friendship, and finding the light within, even in the darkest of times.
THE LIGHT JAR hits store shelves on February 26th, 2019.