Heat and Light
“More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath,” writes Jennifer Haigh in her new novel, HEAT AND LIGHT. Elsewhere she states, “Rural Pennsylvania doesn’t fascinate the world, not generally. But cyclically, periodically, its innards are of interest.” In many ways, the book can be read as an extended meditation on these two ideas, explored through the recent crisis of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) in the Marcellus Shale and, to a lesser extent, through the less recent crisis of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in the late 1970s.
Here Haigh returns to Bakerton, the same town she brought so vividly to life in BAKER TOWERS and again in her short story collection, NEWS FROM HEAVEN. In BAKER TOWERS, we saw Bakerton as a coal mining town in the wake of World War II. In HEAT AND LIGHT, we see Bakerton 60 years later, in 2010, struggling to define itself --- and even to survive --- in the wake of the decline of the coal mines that have given the town its identity and even its name.
"...a powerful portrait of a whole community on the verge of crisis, on the razor-edged balancing point between some terrifying new beginning and some increasingly distant past."
In the midst of this identity crisis (which also manifests itself as an epidemic of methamphetamine use and petty crime), in comes Dark Elephant, a fracking company that has been busily snapping up gas leases on farms and properties that rest on the Marcellus Shale. Fresh from decimating the natural gas fields of Louisiana and points west, Dark Elephant has set its sights on what it predicts will be the most profitable natural gas field yet --- and it’s sitting right under the backyards of the good people of Bakerton.
At first, farmers who have banked all their hopes on Dark Elephant’s promises of easy money grow frustrated when years go by before drilling starts. But when drilling does get underway, the problems compound themselves, ranging from questionable drinking water (and possible health repercussions) to --- and this is where the heart of Haigh’s novel resides --- conflicts that throw into high relief the weaknesses in the interpersonal relationships of Bakerton’s residents. Spouses begin to distrust one another; betrayals seem easier; neighbors cast doubts on one another’s motives. Just when Bakerton residents should present a united front against this outside force that has promised them so much and delivered so little, Dark Elephant’s fracking brings to the surface the many fractures that can leave relationships vulnerable or even broken.
Initially, it can be a challenge to navigate HEAT AND LIGHT. The lack of a central character can leave readers feeling a little adrift, without a single person or conflict on whom to focus. Still, the characters are all easily distinguishable and memorable, meaning that readers who persevere (and they should!) will eventually discover that what Haigh has created is a powerful portrait of a whole community on the verge of crisis, on the razor-edged balancing point between some terrifying new beginning and some increasingly distant past.
HEAT AND LIGHT fills in the personal stories behind the headlines and offers plenty of human and historic context to an environmental and economic issue that remains ever-pertinent.
Audiobook available, read by Michael Rahhal and Allyson Ryan
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 27, 2016
Heat and Light
- Publication Date: February 28, 2017
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 448 pages
- Publisher: Ecco
- ISBN-10: 0061763497
- ISBN-13: 9780061763496