Here is a tale to make a reader’s heart soar.
Light Boxes was first published last year by a small press named Publishing Genius, in a limited-edition run; now, larger publishing houses have given Shane Jones’s debut novel a wider release – and deservedly so, because it’s an absolute gem. It’s the story of a balloon-maker named Thaddeus Lowe, whose town is held in the grip of February. Flight, by any means, is prohibited, and wintry weather is the norm. The town’s children have been going missing in mysterious circumstances, including Thaddeus’s own daughter, Bianca. War is declared on February, and Thaddeus seeks answers – or revenge.
The first thing one notices about Light Boxes is, perhaps inevitably, its format. Physically, this is an unusually small book – it could well be read in one sitting, and that’s what I’d advise; Jones creates an intense vision, which is best experienced in a single sustained burst. The chapters are also very short, and different fonts indicate (for example) first- and third-person narration; both these techniques give the impression of a story being built out of brief glimpses that are taken from different angles – which is entirely appropriate for the kind of uncertain, oblique tale Jones is telling.
Jones has an eye for a striking image, be it horses covered in moss or a group of bird-masked balloonists; all adds to the pervading sense of unreality in his novel. But what really makes Light Boxes work so well is the sense that it’s operating on about three different levels of reality at once, and that no single interpretation makes complete sense. One could read the story as a metaphorical representation of Thaddeus Lowe working through his grief. Or it could be seen as a tale of a writer literally affecting the world and lives of his characters as he writes – or maybe both of these things, and more besides.
I could describe the experience of reading Light Boxes as being like witnessing a beautiful mirage, but that wouldn’t be correct, because a mirage is ultimately insubstantial. Jones’s novel comes together enough that one can formulate theories about what’s going on; but it drifts apart beautifully when one tries to pin it down. What a wonderful read.