Nearly two decades after the publication of her best-selling novel The Wives of Bath, Susan Swan revisits protagonist Mary Beatrice Bradford – M.B. or Mouse for short – in a prequel set in Madoc’s Landing, a fictional Ontario town on Georgian Bay inspired by Swan’s hometown of Midland.
The time is the late 1950s, before Mary leaves home to attend Bath Ladies College in Toronto. Mary is a studious girl who lost her mother as a child and walks with a limp in her left leg from Polio. At 12 years old, she longs for attention from her preoccupied father, Morley, a revered local doctor. Mary is cared for by her father’s housekeeper (and Mary’s future stepmother), Sal, and her aunt Louise (jokingly nicknamed Little Louie because of her tall stature).
The family is rattled by the arrival at the nearby psychiatric hospital of Gentleman John Pilkie, a charismatic but unpredictable ex-hockey hero serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife and baby girl. In an effort to get his case reviewed, John turns to Morley for help, and strikes up an unusual friendship with impressionable and eager-to-please Mary, who mistakenly interprets his attentions as romantic.
The Western Light is told from the perspective of a much older Mary recalling her “time of non-bleeding,” during which she attempted to comprehend the complexities of adult relationships. Though the plot offers a number of breakups, flirtations, and unions for her younger self to mull over, these are only background. The real focus of the novel involves a dissection of the potential for good and evil to reside in a single person and an examination of the family mythology and heroic tales we create for ourselves.
Swan neatly weaves in details of the history of the Ontario oil boomtown Petrolia, hockey mania, bootlegging taxi drivers, and debates over psychiatry and universal health care. Her poetic descriptions of Ontario’s harsh winter weather and adept use of colloquial speech (especially where Sal is concerned) are particularly vivid, and help bring the world of the novel to vibrant life.