Books & Literature

Book Review: Where Light Meets Water, by Susan Paterson

HISTORICAL FICTION: Where Light Meets Water is a multi-stranded novel of love – of a man and a woman, of a sailor and the sea, and of an artist and his gift.

A most captivating tale that makes you want to read it all at once, concurrently you never want the story to end. What an outstanding debut novel!

Feature image credit: Simon & Schuster

When author Susan Paterson discovered that her great-great-great grandfather, Captain Thomas Robertson, was both a sea captain and maritime oil painter who had traversed similar lands as she had, she was inspired. Sixteen years later, the novel was finally complete.

Like a delightful block of chocolate, it is hard not to enjoy it all at once. That is how I would describe the reading of Where Light Meets Water. To savour the time spent reading, I took advantage of the structure. There are four main parts of this novel.

Part one takes up almost a third of the book and is set in London, in the year 1847. It is the slowest part of the novel. Parts two and three, set in London between 1848 and 1852, and Melbourne and Port Chalmers between 1853 and 1871 (respectively), are almost identical in length, around 100 pages each. Part four is set in the Pacific in 1871 and is the shortest in length. As each part is set in a new location, it felt like a nice distinction between epochs in protagonist Tom Rutherford’s life. This allows the reader to enjoy each story within his story, as well as providing space for a natural break from such an absorbing read.

In a nutshell, this is a story about love, and about what compels us. Tom feels most alive on a voyage across the seas. He is an ambitious sailor who dreams of one day commanding his own ship and has endured much already in his first 28 years of life. Tom’s on-land passion is entwined with his journeys as he paints images of ships, seas, and storms.

He had not prepared himself for love, and by a stroke of luck repeated, he finds it in fellow painter Catherine Olgive. They share this common passion, however, they come from different worlds; hers is the world on land, where privilege, status, and money count. At all times, Catherine is chaperoned by her kind aunt Cecelia, and regularly challenges her brother Alfred, who strongly supports the idea of a proper marriage for her. The three of them live together with Catherine and Tom’s father.

The people in Tom’s life that are of importance include Seamus, the ship’s doctor, and Captain Martin, the man who taught him everything he knows of the sea. As the novel unravels, each of their worlds are richly told with descriptive vocabulary, allowing one to visualise the society in which they live.

Character development occurs mainly through spoken dialogue, or the sharing of memories between Tom and Catherine, or Tom and Seamus. The dialogue used is apt for the period in which they live, as are the courting process and gender roles. In this way, Paterson explores themes such as art, feminism, privilege, and power.

This is a remarkable novel for historical fiction lovers like me, and suitable also for lovers of classic literature. In reality, though, Where Light Meets Water is a great novel for any audience, and personally I look forward to Paterson’s next piece of work.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

The views expressed in this review belong to the author and not Glam Adelaide, its affiliates, or employees.

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster
Released: May 2023
RRP: $32.99

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