Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Review: Secret Light
Secret Light by Z.A. Maxfield
Rafe came to the United States at the age of twelve as a refugee after the Nazis invaded his native Austria. He changed his too-German sounding name, made himself a new home in his new country and eventually managed to make a good life for himself through hard work and a winning personality. (His motto is “nobody says no to Rafe Colman.”) But except for his prowess as a Real Estate agent, everything else about his life is a lie. First and foremost, he’s not the womanizer he acts for the benefit of his co-workers, not in the slightest – he’s gay, and on the surface his life revolves around keeping this secret a secret. He even concocted a clever scheme that secures him the sympathy of the women he keeps hooking up with as part of his cover. But beneath this disguise, Rafe hides even more secrets. Extra precaution has been ingrained into him ever since he was a child, and events he witnessed since only reinforced his preformed notion that he can’t allow anybody to find out about him, never, not on any terms. However, the price Rafe pays for his safety is terrible, soul-freezing loneliness. Caught up in secrecy and fear, Rafe isolated himself from each and every personal contact; he has no friends, only colleagues and neighbors, and the only being he really has a connection with is his dog, Mookie (who, by the way, was a treat and a wonderful character in her own right and, as opposed to other canine matchmakers I’ve come across now and then, actually served another, very crucial and rather dark purpose in the plot.)
Ironically, Rafe’s safety is broken by a prejudice about him that couldn’t be further off the mark. His house being defaced with Nazi symbols and his garage going up in flames calls LAPD Officer Ben Morgan to the scene, an honest man and a protector at heart. At first, it’s only the hatred behind the crime that gets Ben’s hackles up, and the way his partner Calhoun shrugs it off on the same prejudices that fueled the crime in the first place. But as he forms a tentative connection with Rafe via Rafe’s dog, Ben senses something from the crime victim – he barely dares to hope, but could Rafe actually be a kindred spirit? It’s the 1950′s, after all, and if being found out as a gay man means ostracism in general society, being found out as a gay cop can literally mean death. Ben takes a tremendous risk putting out tentative feelers towards Rafe, more so since his partner, Calhoun, proves far too perceptive even though Ben goes to great lengths to keep up his tough image.
The writing in itself was exceptional. The interactions between those two men, how Ben approached Rafe with utmost subtlety, how Rafe, even though he was almost petrified from fear, couldn’t help but open up to Ben’s gentle persistence – all this was drawn out in a way that kept me in awe. Rafe and Ben were very much children of their time.
I must admit that all my notions about the 1950′s USA come from books and movies, but I felt immediately transported into this time that still seems to pervade the world’s perception of the USA, even to the present day to some extent. The 1950′s were a time of optimism; America had won the War and brought justice to the world, and American values and morals were prevalent. But America in the 1950′s was also obsessed with appearances. It was a society in which a very conservative mindset prevailed, a mindset that had no tolerance for the misfits, the maladjusted, the different. This was an environment where racism and prejudices against minorities thrived, not only in the general society, but even among the keepers of this society. For those who didn’t fit in, this was a dark, and at times very oppressive era, even with the superficial freedom it was supposed to provide. And Ben and Rafe were perfectly placed within this society.
Ben was a character who immediately went straight to my heart. Except for being gay, Ben was such a wholesome all-American boy, permeated by optimism and firmly rooted in his upbringing. All the evil he witnessed on a daily basis due to his job hadn’t managed to quell his innate faith in law, justice and the goodness of humankind. At first he appeared almost naive in his reckless innocence, but over the course of the story Ben’s character showed that he also possessed depth and insights, and he changed. Being with Rafe and learning his fate opened Ben’s eyes to darker aspects of not only the society in which he lived, but also within his own soul, to a point where he almost broke under the weight of the darkness he found himself capable of. And still, he came out unbroken on the other side, still he managed to remain the beacon of light and hope he had become to Rafe.
Rafe, on the other hand, was the more complicated character right from the beginning. I must admit that at first I didn’t care for him overly much. Yet, the more I learned about him as Ben dug deeper and deeper into his secrets, the more Rafe grew on me. He had gone through so much, he had lost so much that his fear and self-inflicted emotional numbness became totally understandable. In the end, Rafe came out the true innocent of the two, and not only because he was sexually less experienced than Ben. Once Rafe opened up, he trusted Ben completely, didn’t hold back anymore; he became a perfect receptacle for Ben’s light.
One small issue I had with this book revolved mostly around the fact that I felt somewhat hit over the head with the mise-en-scène of the historical setting, particularly in the beginning. Also, the actual motivation of Rafe’s attacker eluded me.
My other issue was more of a personal nature since this story contained quite a lot of German terms, some of which tripped me up because they were used incorrectly or just plain awkward. Non-German speakers most probably won’t even notice the latter, and I wouldn’t even have mentioned it hadn’t the author stated in her dedication that she had a perfectly reliable and accessible source of German translation and expertise readily available that she could have used. Besides, the writing was otherwise so perfect I would’ve expected the same kind of thoroughness in this regard.
Aside from these minor niggles, this is a wonderful book, it’s hopeful and uplifting despite its bittersweet undertones, and the story in itself is so beautiful it transcends the holiday spirit, transforming it into the simple marvel of two people finding each other. Highly, warmly recommended.
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