Book review: A Country of Eternal Light, Paul Dalgarno

A stunning story about the ephemeral nature of life in a human body.

A Country of Eternal Light functions as a window into its protagonist’s life, spanning many years, multiple countries, two children, several grandchildren, heartbreak, holidays and a fatal diagnosis. First-person present-tense is the perfect space from which to recall the past with clarity, without neglecting hindsight. The chronologically fragmented retrospective structure makes this journey all the more intense for the reader, who is able to witness the protagonist’s life from outside an embodied perspective. 

The story begins in Margaret’s 34th year (although it doesn’t stay there) when her twin daughters are eight years old. In 1967, Margaret is a telephone operator with good legs. In 1959, she is a mouse-loving child. In 2014, she silently observes her adult daughter telling stories to her wife and kids. The narrative moves backwards and forwards through time – seeing without eyes – referencing multiple moments that exist within a personal context, but that are set against the backdrop of a cultural mass psyche. This is a journey of sadness and love, disguised as an exercise in dualism. 

Frequent historical callbacks draw attention to the things we deem to matter when nothing else remains. Analogies are drawn between a welding mask in 1963 and a COVID mask in 2021. The importance of seemingly insignificant moments is continually highlighted to examine the spaces between ignorance, blame and belated revelation. Often playful and always deep, an underlying sadness penetrates these pages. Then again, so does joy, with passages capable of eliciting laughter and tears in quick succession.

There is an initial but temporary ambiguity as to whether this book contains a collection of conventional recollections, or a series of spectral moments re-observed in postscript omniscience. However, it is apparent from the start that these reruns of life combine humour and heart with beautiful prose, in glorious detail.

A Country of Eternal Light grapples with truth perceived too late, the harsh reality of missing major moments, and the value of listening – or even just pretending – to the people who matter, when it counts. With playful sentence structure and cutting clarity, the author deals with death as a part of life. 

Unflinching and raw without descending into gratuitous morbidity, this emotional ghost story plays poetically with language. This book pulses with existence and electricity, delving into the question of consciousness with heart-wrenching humanity. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – an appropriate motif – pops up in the strangest of places with recurrent galvanic resonance.

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A Country of Eternal Light overflows with beauty and pain, twin concepts with emotional tendrils that are irrevocably intertwined. A subtle sense of foreboding permeates this stunning narrative about the ephemeral nature of human life, culminating in a conclusion capable of cracking a reader in two. As funny as it is sad, this book will resonate with humans – dead or alive – and beings whose awareness prevents them from vanishing wholly into the void.

A Country of Eternal Light by Paul Dalgarno* 
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 9781460763100
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320 pp
Release Date: 1 February 2023
RRP: $32.99

* Paul Dalgarno is ScreenHub‘s Managing Editor

Nanci Nott is a nerdy creative with particular passions for philosophy and the arts. She has completed a BA in Philosophy, and postgraduate studies in digital and social media. Nanci is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing, and is working on a variety of projects ranging from novels to video games. Nanci loves reviewing books, exhibitions, and performances for ArtsHub, and is creative director at Defy Reality Entertainment.