Reviewed by Michael B. Tager
There's a useful cliché out there: wherever you go, there you are. It sounds like nonsense on its surface—most clichés do—but there's underlying truth to it. It simply means that you can't outrun your problems. Fleeing your home, your city, your family, and your friends may serve a purpose, but it isn't a panacea and eventually, you'll still have to confront your demons.
Of course, there's another cliché in direct opposition to those sentiments: Sometimes you have to get the hell out of Dodge.
Light There Is to Find, the newest novel by Heather Rounds, follows Sara as she seeks to find herself in the unlikely destination of Armenia. The locals don't understand why she's going there, her family at home can't comprehend it, her ex-boyfriend (and all-around creep of a fellow) thinks she's lost her mind. And to be honest, Sara doesn't fully grasp her decision. She just knows that, after a surgery to remove a growth—as she describes it, to "suction the little man from my fallopian tubes"—she no longer can sit idly at home. She has to move beyond herself in whatever way she can.
At her friend Narine's cafe, she sees a photograph and becomes fixated on, "an anemic shell of a concrete building, bolted to a dry plain in the sunshine, a totally washed out pallet of yellows and white." There's an obvious connection between the photo and the image she has of herself, her "barren landscape" that she's become after the surgery to remove the little man. While the obsession is a natural one given her emotional state, her decision to uproot herself immediately and without warning, to find this image and paint it (she's an artist, encouraged by her memories of her deceased father)—well, it's an unusual one. But one the reader can understand.
We've all had the desire to reinvent ourselves, to Eat-Pray-Love our way through the world. There's this fantastical idea that we can actualize ourselves by seeking enlightenment in out-of-the-way places, in out-of-the-way people who control the secrets of the universe. Maybe it's true (Buddha did it, right?) but it's probably just bullshit. It's a privileged fantasy and Rounds knows this, I think. Light There Is to Find doesn't take the piss out of this fantasy, but it does deconstruct it. Because wherever we go, there we are, eh?
When we imagine our spiritual salvation, we envision excitement and moments of deep, reflective calm. We forget that life is rarely that, but a series of quiet, uninteresting seconds that build to a whole. We blink, and we're in a place that we don't recognize. Sara's experiences are valuable and gorgeously written, but she doesn't experience the typical perpetual thrills we hope for, and she doesn't have misadventures, exactly, that might inspire schadenfreude. She's in the wrong place for that.
Instead, Sara's out of place in Armenia, in a depressed town that is still reeling from a devastating earthquake from decades past, amongst people who don't understand or particularly care about her desire to do something. When you're out of place, you can effortlessly become "other." It feels like Sara experiences that, because she's in a place where her personal concerns can seem less than. She does make a friend, Melik, during her time in Armenia. And while Melik empathizes with her pain, he's got pain of his own.
I've got a fog of visuals. Like gravestones. The road lined with crosses and coffins . . . stacked five high. People peeking under sheets to see what bodies could be recognized. The mud holes dug, and the burials, the ceremonies and just that sound of grief. Like, old women crying. Men yelling to each other, and my neighbor. She was pregnant and worried that something would be wrong with the baby. She thought it would come out with its brain cracked.
It can be pointless to compare misery and trauma if the goal is one-upmanship, but it can be cathartic when the point of it is empathy and understanding. Sara learns from other people's pain, but she doesn't discount her own. Sara starts one way—feckless, passive, lost—and ends another. It's the journey that's important, because sometimes we have to get out of Dodge, you know?
Light There Is to Find is a lovely, somber, funny book. Rounds is adept at avoiding the easy connections and instead mines real experiences and sorrow to explore how we wind up where we do and how we can progress beyond the confines of self-made prisons. Sara is all of us. She is lost without knowing it and bound without seeing the ropes that tie her. She makes a drastic move to break away and maybe she fails, maybe she succeeds. It's worth reading to find out and to think that maybe we can fix our own flaws in whatever weird way we can.