Pale Morning Light with Violet Swan: A Novel of a Life in Art

Image of Pale Morning Light With Violet Swan: A Novel of a Life in Art
Release Date: 
October 6, 2020
Mariner Books
Reviewed by: 

Marvelous and painful, truthful and penetrating, this novel, with every page, requires the reader to sense, to live in and cherish the present moment. A 93-year-old woman, Violet Swan, celebrated for her abstract paintings, finds herself at the end of her life experiencing the fleeting days of her dwindling existence.

The all-knowing narrator who describes the activity of the novel sounds like the artist herself, seeing the full color and detail that artists observe so well: “The base coat on her canvas was only half finished, and still she remained at the windows, distracted by the light, the yard and the thick forest beyond the grass, the warm sun drawing heat from the trees, an orange gas rising. Periwinkle crocuses streamed over the lawn like lightbulbs with golden filaments. Barn swallows flitted to and from phone wires, their steely-blue wings and mustard bellies flashing in the sun.”

Literature speaks to readers in direct relation to their life experience; one day a book is interesting because yesterday the reader lived a moment of it, or imagined it; the next day another reader tosses the same work aside, waiting to step into his own shimmering, evolving life.

Pale Morning Light with Violet Swan sees existence through an artist’s eyes nearing the end of her days. So it’s not for everyone. Even the joy of a new phrase describing a familiar detail can be postponed for the next decade when you might be searching, desperately, for the meaning of a life remembered. Not many get to be 93. And Violet sees the colors of the world around her with hopeful acceptance of another dawn, another noon, another night. So it feels worthy, to sit with Violet Swan and contemplate the shimmering stones of her life.

In writer’s circles, the first page of a novel is critical as it needs to be full of the urgency of reading this particular story; it has to engage the reader immediately. And yet here, Deborah Reed, the author, talks of speckles of pale ochre slipping from a paintbrush to the drop cloth and the fir floor under that. The earthquake and Violet’s memory of a burning farmhouse that chars the right side of her body when she was 14—that takes place on page three, seamlessly woven into the narrative.

There is a dream-like quality to Violet’s inner monologue that consistently brings the reader back to the past, seamlessly, visiting her, appearing uninvited, like memories do. It’s a gentle thing, capturing Violet’s personal experiences in memories that fleet into consciousness but stay because they resonate: “Again that feeling descended on her, a convergence of time and space, as if she existed everywhere at once. She’d reached out her hand, as if to touch her father’s gramophone, with its oak horn sprouting like a giant hollyhock filled with crackling tunes . . .”

This is the charm of this novel. “The thing about time was that no matter how Violet had changed on the outside, on the inside she had remained every age she ever was.”

“She could hear her father’s voice cutting through the music as clearly as a trumpet’s flare. As clearly as if he had never gone away. Listen to this, Violet. It’s a dandy.  Go get your mother. And don’t forget Em.”

So like this, Violet’s life unfolds to the reader, the secrets, the yearning. What is she trying to solve in these last days? What can she say that will comfort? Complicating this is her family surrounding her: her son Frank and his wife Penny, who live below Violet and whose conversations she can sometimes hear through the heating vent. Her beloved grandson, Daniel, who for half of the book is on his way to Blueberry Lane where Violet lives. He brings with him a big secret, and in the meantime, more of Violet’s life as a young woman has come into the readers consciousness like a vision, fading up and down and mixed with current concerns. For example, when the earthquake shakes their foundations in the first chapter, Penny’s determination to leave Frank is thwarted by a gash in his head.

As the novel progresses, as her grandson finally receives her permission to film a documentary on her life, secret after secret is revealed to the mutual shock of all: a fire that tore through her house when she was seven and burned one half of her body was not really caused by the Christmas tree burning; she speaks fluent French; she’s dying of cancer. And then, new relatives are presented and what was the story that brought them to life? Through it all, Violet paints with confidence and dwindling energy.

Complex and full of the richness of a life in the arts courageously lived, Pale Morning Light with Violet Swan never strays far from the artist’s palette, from what she sees in the dark shadows, only to reveal the pastels, the light, and ultimately the love and forgiveness. Because after all, what can we do with this marvelous moment we have been given?