Allee Richards’ A Light in the Dark is split into two acts – appropriate for a novel concerned with the world of theatre. It is Richards’ second novel, coming two years after Small Joys of Real Life.
The first act of A Light in the Dark follows Iris as she navigates high school. Quickly befriending Molly, Iris learns that the social structure of Pen College is split into perceived degrees of success and failure. The Blondes, a group of popular girls, are desired and admired. Nina, on the other hand, is an outcast – awkward, self-conscious and friendless.
Iris and Molly spend their lunchtimes reading and chatting. They watch the politics of popularity at play – all the while remembering that, were it not for Nina, they would be at the bottom of the social barrel.
The one class in which popularity seemingly ceases to hold weight is drama, where Iris experiences an opening of her intellectual horizons. In the class, Iris finds joy – and something more bitter.
Soon, a disquieting power structure emerges, and Iris finds herself subject to emotions that are both obsessive and destructive.
While the first act examines Iris’ adolescence, the second – set several years later – explores the aftershocks of the events of high school. After failing several times to gain entry into acting at the Victorian College of the Arts, Iris settles into a generic arts degree. She meets Nick in an Australian Literature tutorial, and their relationship slowly flowers.
For a while, life is good; Molly is still Iris’ best friend, and together they seem like two perfectly ordinary 20-somethings living in Melbourne. This image shatters when revelations of historic abuse emerge and the façade that has held solid for so long begins to fracture.
The third-person limited point of view of A Light in the Dark is, at times, constrictive; we are never quite allowed into Iris’ emotional headspace. While this is necessary for the plot to function – the selective memory of adolescence is used by Richards’ to shape the narrative twist – it is sometimes frustrating for the reader. Sometimes, Richards’ prose veers against the writerly advice of “show, don’t tell”: this leads A Light in the Dark into a space that feels slightly restrictive.
A Light in the Dark is a novel that attempts to reckon with difficult themes: power imbalances, sexual abuse and the ways in which systemic misogyny operates on those subject to its control.
A Light in the Dark, Allee Richards
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publication Date: 30 August 2023