Getting Past Good Manners 

Novel addresses serious issues beneath hidebound customs

Novel addresses serious issues beneath hidebound customs

Maryland horse country—picturesque, genteel, moneyed—seems an odd setting for a novel concerned with issues like the Vietnam War, the impact of art on society, and a woman’s struggle to balance career and motherhood. But Meg Waite Clayton, in her debut novel The Language of Light (St. Martin’s, 324 pp., $24.95), foregrounds these themes even as her characters participate in the requisite foxhunts and charity balls, and even as they debate what to wear to afternoon tea.

Clayton’s protagonist, the recently widowed Nelly Grace, moves with her two young sons back to her family’s land in northern Maryland. There she is befriended by Emma Crofton, Master of the Hounds and matriarch of this close-knit society. Emma not only teaches Nelly proper behavior in this social context, but also encourages her to pursue photojournalism, the profession Nelly’s father is already famous for. But when Nelly’s father shows up for a visit, armed with cameras and long-held secrets, the novel’s early emphasis on social customs suddenly takes a backseat to deeper explorations of social justice. Emma’s “education” in proper horsemanship expands to include a new awareness of such issues as homelessness and the long-term ruin of war.

Clayton spent four years living in the Maryland hills where The Language of Light is set, learning about the customs there. Later, after attending the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, she settled in Nashville and wrote the bulk of her novel while participating in a writers’ group that meets at the public library in Brentwood. She has since relocated to Santa Barbara, Calif., where she lives with her husband and two sons, and is currently at work on a second novel. Published in November 2003, The Language of Light was a finalist for the prestigious Bellwether Prize last year. She’ll sign copies of her book 6 p.m. March 23 at Davis-Kidd, and she’ll speak on the subject of writing 7 p.m. March 24 at Barnes & Noble.

—Pablo Tanguay

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