“Wuv, true wuv”, as the Impressive Clergyman in 1987’s classic The Princess Bride rather hilariously puts it, often tends to get short accurately-portrayed shrift in popular culture.
Not in terms of how often it is featured, which is a considerable amount, dappled as it is in the many hues afforded by rose-coloured glasses, and frosted in sighs, oohs and aahs and more than the occasional “awwww”; rather, in how it is portrayed, as something effete and lovely (which, truthfully, it can be), powerful in one sense but ultimately a thing of romantic ardour only, instead of the far more truthful thing of towering and obstacle-moving commitment that knows no bounds, which is how Katie Khan (Hold Back the Stars) chooses to give it voice in her second triumphant novel, The Light Between Us.
In this wholly transportive piece of writing that offers up fully-formed, engaging characters, a brilliantly evocative sense of time and place (and space) and friendship so staunch it weathers a host of problems that would defeat those not similarly-blessed, Khan offers up a muscular love that is giddy and heart-swelling when it needs to be, but which boldly flies in the face of convention and the theory of physics with the type of power only elicited by the complete giving over to someone else.
This is love with purpose, power and a building sense of the heart-tingling inevitable, all set against the hallowed halls of Oxford where single-minded genius Thea is working hard to prove, often, make that always, in contravention of the academic powers-that-be, that time travel is possible.
“‘You make for an unusual team,’ Isaac says to Ayo while they cross the overgrown kitchen garden, as though he were chatting about the weather in that typical English way. ‘The three – four – of you.’
‘A crazy genius, a sarcastic hacker, an upper-class lady, and a Naija queen? Sounds like a good team to me,’ Ayo says haughtily as they cross the three stepping stones leading to the barn. ‘Diverse. Different. Strong.'” (P. 93)
Flying in the face of accepted belief on what she believes is firmly set-out theory and trenchant self-belief, and with the support of friends who don’t always completely agree with her but will support her right to pursue what she believes with unwavering backing as true friends do, Thea is a woman who is more than capable and far more than able to silence her critics, undertake the necessary experiments to prove her thesis, and convinced that on her path lies points proved and groundbreaking science well established.
But everyone, even science-obsessed Thea, needs goods friends such as boldly kindhearted non-scientist Rosy, eye-rolling inducing sassy Urvisha and calmly-logical Ayo, all of whom come to mean a great deal more in the series of events that follow the budding time-traveller’s decision to press ahead with her PhD experiments, official imprimatur of the Oxford hierarchy be damned.
But while these women are eminently capable, and endlessly, empoweringly supportive within themselves, you can never have too many friends right, of either gender?
Which is where the dashing but kind Isaac comes in, a man Thea meets early on in their academic careers – he’s a digital archivist, the person who gives us a layman’s vantage point on the complicated science underpinning this muscularly-romantic book – and who, bar the misunderstandings of an unfortunate night, may have come to mean so much more to Thea than that of a stalwart, warts-and-all, perspective-re-establishing friend.
But the path of true love is seldom smooth as that wise wizard of words, William Shakespeare once sagely remarked in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Thea and Isaac have never quite managed to get their romantic ducks, or time periods, in a row.
The Light Between Us, which in an ever-escalating and often originally-framed trend in current literature, holds time travel as the central driver of its narrative – the idea of time travel at least; it’s never made clear that this has absolutely taken place, although we are given another delicious, current reality-defying possibility instead – takes that aborted sense of entanglement, once borne of Thea’s academic single-mindedness and Isaac’s unwillingness to risk the friendship for love that may continue to go, friendship-sundering, unrequited, and plays beguilingly with it, taking us, and Thea and Isaac to place neither person has even begun to conceive of (and Thea is possessed of a powerful ability to scientifically imagine).
What makes the will-they, won’t they, will-they-ever-really-be-able-to game so entrancingly fun is the way Khan gifts us with two characters who are spectacularly well-wrought from the get-go.
Never simply cardboard cutout characters solely in the service of a compelling narrative, and that is what The Light Between Us mostly definitely possesses among a great many other superlative qualities, Thea and Isaac stand well and truly on their own two feet, people who could, and do, exist just fine on their own but who could be rather wonderful together if fate, and some scientific finagling, were to be so accommodating.
“‘Perhaps the truth really is one of the simple answers we were trying to discount today. A strong family gene,’ Isaac says, ‘or the app revealing your museum doppelganger.’ He pauses almost imperceptibly at the word doppelganger, sucking in the new resonance it carries for them.” (P. 210)
Khan manages with singularly-impressive aplomb to keep us guessing throughout while delivering up far more than just another possible love story.
Love is in play there is no doubt, and Khan weaves it every bit as magically and wonderfully as your heart might desire, but it is given a robustness and a sense of service to great impetuses and reasoning that simply some sort of ham-fisted lovestruck longing.
There is so much more going on here than just love; strong women staring down a disbelieving patriarchy, friendship that could well stand the test of time, and well beyond, and the way in which we all, to some extent or another, the product of decisions-made, forks in the road taken and the consequences, good or bad, that come forth as a result.
The Light Between Us gives love its proper place in the pantheon of motivations; lovely, sweeping and all-consuming in the most entrancing of ways true, but with a strong sense of reason and purpose and an unwavering of commitment come what may that underscores, and trust me it need some decent PR after so much misrepresentation, that it is so much stronger, and capable of so much more, than any of us give it credit for.