A Review of
Light from Distant Stars:
Reviewed by Cynthia Beach
With his first line, author Shawn Smucker startled me into his novel Light from Distant Stars and then kept me in his unique time-slip story where we first meet protagonist Cohen Marah stepping over his dad’s body.
The novel covers six consecutive days, starting with Monday, March 16, 2015. Each day— through Smucker’s masterful flashback—shakes off its 24-hour restraint to travel the thousand hours back to Cohen’s childhood in the 1980s. Here traumatic memories surface and are lanced. Maybe now healing and freedom for our protagonist can begin.
Cohen needs healing. He writhes in soul pain. His adult life speaks of isolation; he’s living a life laid down for his father. Now he must move through broken familial relationships and his smashed-up childhood to reconcile with what is. He was, after all, the one who discovered his pastor dad’s affair. And he was the one who chased the Beast.
When his father’s fall from grace smashes the family into smithereens, Cohen’s rather cold mother leaves and takes Cohen’s sister, Kaye, to live with her in a different town. Cohen and his father move into a neglected apartment above the funeral home where Pastor Calvin Marah now works. Calvin begins to neglect Cohen, too, as drink becomes the new engine in his ruined life.
What helps the adult Cohen’s journey is being reunited with his loving sister and a pal from the past. Another good guide is retired Catholic priest Father James who shows up for Cohen in the wee hours of night to receive confession and to talk. This retired priest comes back on duty solely for Cohen.
I found the repeated lines from the ritual of confession beautiful: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” and “I confess to the Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word and deed….” The ancient words made me yearn for a cleansing practice like this one. Cohen repeats the words and sees and grows. The Christ he sees at first doesn’t look like the Christ he sees at last.
Smucker’s style and genre have been likened to Madeleine L’Engle and Ray Bradbury. To that, I’d add one cup of Frank Peretti. There’s a spiritual sphere that is alive in this novel. The Beast appears and ravages and kills. This dark monster is real. So are the two strange children, Thad and Hippie, who appear and seem “real” until their shadows fail to appear on the wall next to Cohen’s.
A longtime writer and co-writer, Smucker has gained recent attention with his young adult novels. The Day the Angels Fell won the 2018 Christianity Today Book Award and was a 2019 Christy Award Finalist, while The Edge of Over There received the 2019 Christianity Today Award of Merit and a 2019 INSPY Award, literature for young adults. His memoir about an unlikely friendship with a Syrian refugee, Once We Were Strangers, is available, too.
Smucker’s fine storycraft —writing a time-slip novel like this one requires sophisticated moves— and his artful language and deep spirituality, delivers a fresh read in Light from Distant Stars.
Cynthia Beach is author of Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process and Creative Soul Care available at cynthiabeach.com. She’s a longtime writing professor at Cornerstone University and co-founded Breathe Christian Writers Conference.