Book Review: A Country of Eternal Light by Paul Dalgarno

About the Book:

An astonishingly inventive, playful, witty, poignant and deeply moving novel from one of Australia’s most exciting writers.

Margaret Bryce, deceased mother of twins, has been having a hard time since dying in 2014. These days she spends time with her daughters – Eva in Madrid, and Rachel and her family in Melbourne – and her estranged husband, Henry, in Aberdeen. Mostly she enjoys the experience of revisiting the past, but she’s tiring of the seemingly random events to which she repeatedly bears witness. There must be something more to life, she thinks. And death.

Spanning more than seventy-five years, from 1945 to 2021, A Country of Eternal Light follows Margaret as she flits from wartime Germany to Thatcher’s Britain to modern-day Scotland, Australia and Spain, ruminating on everything from the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster and Australia’s Black Summer bushfires to Mary Queen of Scots’ beheading, the death of Princess Diana and in-vitro fertilisation. But why is facing up to what’s happened in one’s past as hard as, if not harder than, blocking it out completely? A poignant, utterly original and bitingly funny novel about complicated grief and how we remain wanted by our loved ones, dead or alive.

Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia

Released 1st February 2023

My Thoughts:

What a unique and innovative novel this was. Narrated by a woman who has passed away, we journey with her back and forth to different moments of her entire life, the big moments as well as the little ones. Margaret is witty, darkly so, perhaps in response to the fact that she’s dead and floating like an unseen presence within her previous life. She also is able to look beyond the timeframe of her death, looking in on her family and how they are going since the time she passed. She has no idea why she’s stuck, why she’s watching her life on repeat. There is a sense throughout the narrative that whilst Margaret is not privy to the reasons, then we won’t be either. I loved this immersion aspect utilised by Paul Dalgarno. We only know what Margaret knows and we only see what she sees.

In addition to Margaret being able to see her family’s lives beyond her death, looking back allows her to see things she may have missed within key moments whilst living them. Her commentary on this is at times wickedly funny. Things like bad haircuts on her daughters as children, things her husband has done that she mocks, her own attractiveness, which she is constantly crowing about. For a good while though, as a reader, you wonder where it’s all going. I’m not one for spoilers, but I will mention that I loved how it seemed that children could sense, possibly even see Margaret as a ghost. She herself was not sure of this, but the actions of the child characters in question seemed to indicate it to be so. I wondered if this was a playful hint that as children, we are more open to seeing beyond, a sense we lose as we age and become jaded by life and less willing to believe in the impossible.

And then you reach the point of it all. Absolutely breath-taking. This is a novel that I wanted to immediately read again, so that I could look for clues throughout, to see if I could pick it on the second read. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to though. The writing is such that it steers you here and there, yet never fully allows you to see the bigger picture until almost the end. It is an astonishingly clever novel that is deeply moving and profound in its messages about grief and living with loss. Highly recommended.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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