By Phoebe Cuskelly
The Things We See in the Light is a light charming chic lit novel, but fails to create tension or characters worth remembering.
A novel of self-discovery and unexpected romance, The Things We See in the Light brings charm and mystery to the chic lit genre. Eight years ago, Sahar left her friends, family, and successful cake business behind to follow an arranged marriage to Jordan. Now, scarred inside and out, she’s returned to Sydney alone.
After gaining a position at a local patisserie and chocolate shop run by Maggie, an imposing but kind mentor, Sahar craves to take control of her life. Her childhood friends tie her to her Islamic roots. But it’s her new colleagues and soon to be friends, Kat, Inez, and Luke, that thrust her into new experiences. Sahar reinvents herself, transforming her faith to serve her and finding a new way of life at 40. However, despite diving into this new way of living, Sahar is forced to face her past in unexpected places.
Sahar is a refreshing rebel. Rather than a wild heroine, she is conservative and cautious, adamant to take on challenges at her own pace. This confidence and maturity are accurately reflective of the older protagonist. There is a nuanced struggle between wanting to keep her habits of old and delving into the curiosity of discovering her future. The first-person narration is a good tool to provide this introspection; readers get to live in Sahar’s memories and understand the disparity between the life she was living and her new beginning in Australia. The dual timelines progress at a slow, but satisfying, rate.
When Sahar used to live in Australia, she owned her own cake business. She liked the control and freedom. However, Maggie forces her to start at the bottom, alongside the inexperienced apprentices. It’s frustrating for our protagonist but gives an interesting perspective on pride and how we perceive our own skills. Sahar’s talent in the kitchen is undeniable and Awad has a knack for describing her creations in salivating detail to create the most vivid prose of the novel. Her power to suffuse the reader in the ingredients and flavours is almost tangible. Sahar’s journey in the kitchen parallels her journey of self.
Despite creating such a unique protagonist, Awad’s ability to evoke emotion is lacking. Her characters are one dimensional. Detailed physical differences are the extent of sense stimulation. The narration is verbose and telling, leaving no load on the reader. Awad often falls back on clichés to create imagery. This makes The Things We See in the Light an easy book to escape within.
Awad diverts from chic-lit to touch on more serious topics such as miscarriage, affairs, death, and questions of faith. The stakes are set high. However, Sahar’s docile handling of tension, and some fairly obvious plot twists, destroy any chance of tension. Even the climax of the book, where Sahar and her estranged husband, Khaled, finally meet in Sydney, spans five pages, resulting in an underwhelming and amicable conversation. Though her resilience is admirable, the novel would have benefitted from showing us Sahar’s struggles. It ignores the realism of living with trauma and cements the protagonist as simply a work of fiction. Awad was bold pairing thriller notes with chic-lit, but needed to be immersed more deeply if she wanted to succeed.
The ending ties up the loose strings in a perfectly predictable bundle – Sahar gets the guy, the job, the house, and ultimately her perfect life. It’s an easy way to satisfy readers, but Awad had an opportunity to create a didactic ending to resonate with readers who connected with Sahar, and missed the mark.
The Things We See in the Light is as sweet as the decadent delicacies it describes and a unique addition to the Australian literary landscape. However, it is predictable and flat, resulting in a book you can definitely put down – perfect for a rainy weekend, your nightly chapter or just to swap reality for some hot baking (and bedroom) inspiration.
The Things We See in the Light is available now from Bloomsbury.
Phoebe Cuskelly is a Meanjin/Brisbane based writer. She has a strong affinity for (too) loud music, black coffee, and long walks. She hopes to marry rich so she can write and procrastinate for life.