Ambient Light: A Novel

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Kate Stout’s Ambient Light is a poignant work of literary fiction that explores the interconnections among friends and love interests as well as the enduring impact that a pivotal figure can have on a group. Told from the alternating perspectives of the central characters and set during the tumultuous period that begins with the transformative 1960s and ends with the disorientating years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the story follows the lives of six friends―Adie, Breck, Mary Clay, Tony, Jude, and Grady―after their adolescence is marked by the magnetic pull of enigmatic peer Sebastian.

When he leaves them behind to move to San Francisco and live an openly gay life, Sebastian’s departure leaves the group grappling with a mix of unassailable love and simmering resentment. Although the group had started to fracture somewhat even before that point, the absence of Sebastian seems to be the final cut that severs the bonds between them. Yet, initial appearances are often deceptive and the six find themselves moving in and out of each other’s orbit in unexpected ways until the final act of fates pulls them irrevocably apart, one by one.

Stout’s detailed portrayal of the enduring bonds that bind the characters together lies at the heart of the novel, highlighting the complexities of evolving friendships and the lasting impact of a departed friend. Here, Stout dives deep into the characters’ emotions, exploring both their changeable and resolute aspects, slowly drawing out thoughts and feelings that extend in unexpected directions. She has dedicated significant time and effort to the characterization throughout the novel, with each character having unique flaws and strengths that combine to make them engaging and relatable.

Ambient Light is written in a poetic style, which allows Stout to add additional layers of introspection to the story through the characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings, thereby infusing it with a strong sense of nostalgia and impressive depth. The interplay among the characters’ philosophical ruminations and meditations on the meaning of life, including occasional divergences into the fantastical, lends the story another surprising and impactful dimension, which makes separating reality from fiction sometimes tricky and enhances the thought-provoking nature of the novel.

Despite the outwardly conventional nature of the central characters when viewed in their present, when looking back through their pasts and shared histories, their individual attributes―whether hidden or overt―and the truly interesting times in which they live render Ambient Light gripping and immersive from the outset. There are hints of surprising and shocking things on the horizon, and Stout’s descriptions of the intricacies of human relationships and the fragility of life throughout prompt significant emotional investment in the characters’ joys, struggles, and secrets.

Stout paces the story well, maintaining momentum even during the particularly contemplative and introspective scenes, suggesting all the while that Ambient Light is unspooling from an inevitable final revelation that ties the individual stories together. It all makes for an emotionally resonant story that features rich character development and a sensitive yet unflinching exploration of profound aspects of life. Stout’s candid portrayal of issues such as sexuality, identity, and human connection enhances the novel’s depth and relevance, ensuring that it’s consistently compelling and impactful.

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Author Kate Stout
Star Count 4.5/5
Format Hard
Page Count 305 pages
Publisher Saltcoats Press
Publish Date 15-Sep-2023
ISBN 9798988741114 Buy this Book
Issue November 2023
Category Modern Literature