Book Title: A Trick of the Light (Standalone)
Author: Lois Metzger
Number of pages: 189
Mike Welles had everything under control. But that was before. Now things are rough at home, and they’re getting confusing at school. He’s losing his sense of direction, and he feels like he’s a mess. Then there’s a voice in his head. A friend, who’s trying to help him get control again. More than that—the voice can guide him to become faster and stronger than he was before, to rid his life of everything that’s holding him back. To figure out who he is again. If only Mike will listen.
(re: Goodreads @ A Trick of the Light – Lois Metzger)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
– Boys can have self-image problems and eating disorders too
– Narrated by anorexia; a voice of a cheerleader, snark, and rude commentary to corrupt ways of thinking not similar to what it wants
– Home/school life feels completely organic and ordinary; ultimately promoting the perspective that these things can happen to anyone
– Dialogue reads as if it is like a script. (i.e. Mom: text, Dad: text, Anorexia: text italicized)
– While the timeline and legitimacy of events felt intact, the development of strained relationships felt flimsy and rushed (if a tad skipped over)
— Rating: 3.75/5
The selling point to Metzger’s book is not the fact that it features a boy facing anorexia nervosa. Yes it is a different perspective—I’m not discrediting that fact—but it’s a book narrated by anorexia itself and it articulates the severity and power thoughts have to not only influence your actions but to assume the role of pilot to your ship.
Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review from here onward.
Mike Welles leads an average life. He’s the only son to separating parents and is in-between the spectrums of popularity at school. There just isn’t much going for him; especially when he starts to feel dejected when a girl rejects him and his ex-best friend seems to have it all. Then there’s this voice nagging and cheering him on: strong body, strong mind, strong enough to master the chaos—and sometimes, Mike listens.
With a young-adult novel involving separated parents trying to be present for their son while living in a toxic relationship—yeah, it’s pretty awkward and shitty—but I found it to be fairly represented as I grew up in the same kind of environment. At least the parent’s weren’t missing, dead, or off drinking liquid courage to cast their problems away, right? They were parents who, despite their flaws, loved their son. There was this on-going communication between Mike’s ex-best friend and his parents that felt contrived considering the limited character development to indicate such a relationship.
The bulk of the environment presented was pretty darn ordinary. It’s not that certain niche groups (such as like the rich or the poor) don’t face these problems—I’m sure they do—but this showcases an average family trying to find their own tiny bit of happiness in the world. That’s the most metaphysically compelling aspect to this story from a structural perspective. It just feels organic, and there’s something remarkable about the unremarkable that reels you in with its self-awareness and limited flourishes in prose to not alter too much of the typical high school lifestyle.
A Trick of the Light is wholly narrated by anorexia and is an example of the extremes to which lingering thoughts can not only gnaw at your brain but can decay any sense of functional reasoning. It’s not that anorexia forces Mike Welles to judge himself in the mirror, to throw food away, or to remove himself of those who don’t understand—it’s that an idea is a powerful thing—and ultimately, an action out of willingness holds more meaning than one spurred to appease someone. While I can’t speak to the truth of this voice, the journey into the enigmatic darkness is ruthless as shit.
The progression of anorexia rises and falls based on its visibility within Mike; as he loses and gains control. In the early parts of the novel, the exposition is presented from an outside perspective; laying the groundwork of who Mike is and those around him. Toward the middle, the voice melds into Mike’s character and the portrayal is heavily influenced by the conscious interpretation of anorexia narrating the story. By the end, the wavering resolve forces a showdown between the host and its subconscious thoughts (anorexia) extending the story into the reigns of returning control to Mike.
The nuance in writing based on how much corruption has laid waste in Mike’s mind is aided by a script-like depiction of the dialogue:
Dad: Eat more orange chicken.
Mike: Can I not?
Only two more bites until you can leave.
Mom: Have some more meatloaf!
While this does make the experience snippier and to the point, I think it might have been a style choice so that it could italicize the thoughts of the eating disorder in a way that reads like it was part of the conversation.
The characters in this book are both hits-and-misses.
Anorexia was a completely rude and snarky piece of shit. But it was also wonderful to read into. Its choice of words were a blend of compassion, abuse, and manipulative ignorance—all for cheering Mike on—as he dissolved his relationships with those who didn’t build him up like this voice in his head seems to be reminding him of. We are a team, it reassures. I am the best part of you, it claims. Remarks like these are pretty unsettling on the human psyche. I promise you that there are many more of these in the narrative and I don’t want to say too much to spoil the fun in reading this perspective.
Amber is like that person who tests your limits in doing batshit crazy stuff even if you know it sounds like some of the most ridiculous thing ever. I mean…for all intents and purposes, Amber is theoretically the one who sparked this concept of anorexia to Mike and pushed him to that point. It’s fucking ridiculous, I know, but I have to consider that Mike was in a deep pit of crummy feelings and the only person who was propping him up was some manic girl who chugged cinnamon candy to curb appetite. Sigh.
That’s the thing about being young and impressionable—you can easily find yourself in the depths of culture and beliefs if experimentation provides results you enjoy seeing; in this case, idealized physique was his goal. But the focus of this character is completely lost when she is written to have chosen anorexia as a lifestyle. Uhhhh, okay, well, I’ve come across arguments that support this notion, but I can’t see this as anything more than pandering to some cliché that reinforces some necessity to look a certain way via. malnourishment. It also doesn’t help that she’s portrayed as rather hollow beyond her eating disorder—like, really? How about some interests aside from counting calories?
Mike Welles is a teen who rang true for me as a male lead. He’s grown into this state of selfish apathy due to all the shit he’s been through (even if it isn’t clearly developed in storytelling) and it becomes easy for him to dismiss those who may not satisfy his priorities. There’s a passage that outlines the importance of something but not necessarily the importance to you. The difference being if it doesn’t suit your needs, you don’t have to waste your efforts on it. This self-seeking desire is what I associate to a population of teenagers and is one main reason that Mike isn’t a character many readers may jump on board with. He’s not likeable or is easy to root for given his circumstance beyond his eating disorder. Heck, I’m not sure he’s truly redeemable by the end of it. His emotive receptiveness does develop (if slightly) but at what cost? And is it realistic? (Continued in Overall.)
If there’s one glowing issue about this book, it’s that A Trick of the Light is a rather short read and doesn’t fully flesh out the slow-burn and methodical tension of a life spiraling into the realities that come with an eating disorder. The narrative jaunts from moment-to-moment, pinpointing specific rites of passage common of those who struggle with anorexia. Boom—how to lie at a doctor’s checkup. Bam—how to properly hide food. While these events legitimize the research Metzger has put into writing this novel, I cannot help but wonder the strength this book could have harnessed if it didn’t skip months of timeline (or, at least it felt that way). I’m not going to sit here and pretend I know a lot about anorexia nervosa, because I don’t, but from reading Mike’s journey, I would have appreciated if the story dug deeper into the subtleties of strained relationships resulting from early stages of agitation and toxicity.
This doesn’t displace the importance of opening these channels of dialogue to look at self-image in all genders in all situations. That’s why this book won me over (even if I didn’t rate it with some glowing value). And that’s all I should say.
I’m just going to end this review with the sentiments of Dr. Seuss: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”