is an homage to the enduring power of classical literature
David Lehner, a private school teacher, has written in Unwelcome Light a powerful, riveting, disturbing prep school novel, to join the company of such novels as John Knowless A Separate Peace, Tobias Wolffs Old School, and Alice Hoffmans The River King. In each of these novels, including Lehners, the closed society of a boarding school is like a city-state where curses can fester.
It is appropriate that the unnamed protagonist and narrator of Unwelcome Light is a teacher of classics at an American private boarding school, for this novel is a modern enactment of tragic themes as old as Sophocles. Because of family secrets to which he is not privy, the narrator comes close enough to committing incest (unknowingly and even innocently) to be judged guilty, and to be punished for the sin, cursed to live out his days in anguish.
The understated parallel to the Oedipus story is enhanced by the mystery of the narrator's parentage, a nest of secrets that a chorus of colleagues know but won't reveal until it's too late.
Although the ironies that shape both stories are similar, the parallels between Unwelcome Light and Greek tragedy are not strict or obvious. The novel is packed with dark themes, but it is also driven by modern plot twists and populated by complex secondary characters with psychological problems and secrets of their own. These problems include adultery, mental illness, theft, alcoholism, and various forms of deviant sexuality.
In spite of its dark themes, Unwelcome Light is a page-turning, plot-driven novel, intelligent and written with craft and skill. As for the narrator, his only real guilt, and the reason he must suffer for the rest of his days, is that he was unaware of his father's secret. How was he to know? The moral of the story is the message of many a classical tragedy: our fates are up to the gods.
David Lehner was educated at Hobart College and received a Ph.D. from City University of New York. He is the author of Bright Day, a novel.