Review: Breaking Light by Karin Altenberg

Genre: Literary fiction

After retiring from academia, Gabriel, a professor who studies deformity, returns to Mortford, the picturesque Dartmoor village where he grew up. There he befriends Mrs Sarobi, an Afghani immigrant and fellow green thumb, and hires prickly Doris Ludgate to clean his house. However, as he settles back into village life, Gabriel is haunted by events that occurred decades before when he and his best friend, Michael, used to play on the moor. People around the village notice that Gabe often appears to be speaking to people who aren’t there—ghosts, perhaps, or angels. Similarly, Mrs Sarobi and Doris Ludgate are troubled by the past and looking for a way forwards.

Breaking Light (Quercus, Apr. 2016), is a slow-burning story of atonement, resilience and the desire for acceptance.

From the blurb and Goodreads description, I thought Breaking Light would be exactly my kind of book. And I enjoyed many elements of the story. Altenberg’s prose is often lyrical, and she brings Mortford to life in vivid detail. The individual scenes are beautifully composed, and the overarching themes ask the reader to think about the way we choose to include and exclude and how traumatic events experienced in child- and early adulthood affect our grown up lives.

However, I agree with the bulk of other reviews I’ve read that claim there’s too much going on in this story and it lacks cohesion. The first part of the book belongs to Gabriel. Altenberg moves back and forwards in time but sticks to Gabe’s POV. However, as the story progresses, she occasionally switches to Doris Ludlow or Mrs Sarobi’s perspective. These shifts aren’t frequent enough to put these characters on an equal footing with Gabe and, to me, read as a clunky way for Altenberg to give necessary insight into these characters that she couldn’t offer through Gabe. Because these shifts are infrequent and inconsistent, they confuse the narrative. I kept thinking, ‘Hang on, who’s story is this?’

Altenberg also works with a relatively large cast of characters who share complex relationships and secrets and drop in and out of the story. I felt many of the relationships contained scope for an entire novel in and of themselves. Others felt under developed. Both Doris Ludlow and Mrs Sarobi often argue with Gabe and each other, then soon forget that they’re angry without anything being resolved. And the narrative is constantly moving back and forwards in time. Add in the shifting perspectives, and it all gets a bit muddled. Altenberg also explores a lot of ideas in Breaking Light. There’s much discussion about duality and Otherness, and the characters keep talking about ‘mystery’, then, at one point, Gabe goes off on a bildungsroman-style journey, during which the characters start having rather stilted philosophical conversations. It does all tie together, but loosely.

To me, Breaking Light read like a (highly polished) draft, in which Altenberg is still testing out the idea for a story from different angles. I enjoyed all the individual elements, but the overall effect is somewhat patchy.


See Breaking Light on Goodreads and purchase through Booktopia, Book Depository and Amazon.

Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of Breaking Light in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up three critical issues and six advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

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