In Mourning Light, Richard Goodkin seamlessly ties parts of healing from grief to living in a life without your beloved. Drawing from Goodkin’s own experience working at Yale University, and then moving to Wisconsin, Reb, the novel’s narrator, is a man believing he would never be loved, a man who had accepted his fate long before he met his lover, Anthony.
The story takes place during the AIDS epidemic in the United States, when Reb, named after Daphne Du Maurier Rebecca, is haunted by the death of his lover whom he believes he’s killed. When Reb meets Anthony in a sauna, Reb is an assistant professor of English at Yale teaching a class on Shakespeare, and Anthony is a postgraduate student.
Goodkin doesn’t shy away from writing the ugly parts of their relationship, portraying them the way he does the beautiful parts. The fear of being in a relationship is greatly detailed in the novel; Anthony is distant and reclusive towards Reb, while Reb clings onto Anthony and views him as his only love. When Anthony sends a cryptic message from beyond the grave, Reb becomes increasingly troubled and consumed with deciphering it.
Anthony coming out to his parents, and their hostility towards Reb would be relatable to many queer people, especially those growing up in the 80s during the AIDS epidemic, and despite the sensitive nature of the topic, Goodkin’s beautiful prose does it justice. Goodkin talks about the grief of losing a loved one, during an epidemic that targets your identity, and does so wonderfully.
Like in the Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Reb believes that Anthony would never love him the way he adored his past lover, his Rebecca, and that belief colors their entire relationship. He fears of the time Anthony’s past lover would return; these fears of being replaced are so huge that he does not stop to think of anything more during the first few months of their relationship. At one moment in the book, when he discovers that Anthony had been contacted by his past love, he says: “It would sound impressive to write that I had been clever enough to know all along that Rebecca would one day resurface, but that’s not the way it was. On the contrary, I had finally come to believe that like a cancer successfully treated, he never would.”
He sees Anthony as his Rebecca, but fears that Anthony has someone else. The jealousy almost ruins their relationship. Reb does not believe someone as charming and almost perfect as Anthony would ever truly love him.
“Let him give it to me straight—no blindfold for the firing squad of this condemned man.”
The novel offers an intimate account of Reb’s life as he took care of Anthony through his illness. His present life is haunted by his last day with Anthony, one that put a life sentence on him. “I have forsaken my lover. I will not be given another chance. I have killed Anthony.”
His belief is only strengthened as the days go on. Stricken with grief and remorse for killing his lover, Reb says, “Because I did not give Anthony that opportunity. Because as the end approached I told him nothing he wanted to hear. Understood nothing he tried to say. Helped him with nothing he needed me to give him.”
Goodkin’s powerful prose weaves through the past, when Reb’s lover was still alive, to the present, two-and-a-half years since Anthony’s demise, successfully creating a narrative that is both compelling and moving. The novel deals with life after death and the belief of what we know and don’t. It is a story that comes from the heart, one of grief, heartbreak, and a new beginning. There are moments when the novel treads the same waters over and over for an answer, where the timeframe is not clear enough, which might leave the reader confused. And there are parts of the story that aren’t entirely realistic, but the book moves through them in a quick and compelling way, which convinces the reader of the event’s authenticity. Still, the story doesn’t steer away from its focus: the portrayal of this love story.
The novel is part love story, part autobiographical, and entirely interesting. It seamlessly cuts through the scenes, moving between the internal monologues and dialogues well without coming across as messy, and does a good job at showing the intricacies of queer love in the 80s and the grief that follows death. It is an important story, one that is told with sharp wit and elegance all the same. “If he had never truly needed me before, he needed me now. And I would not let him down,” Reb says, a line that perfectly conveys the heartbreak the story has in store for the readers.
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
Publication Date: July 19, 2022
Reviewed by Mrudhula M