Book Review: Safelight (2021)

A woman in a leather coat, white undershirt, holding a book open; text says 'book review: r. crunden'

Safelight by Casey Lown

He pressed his forehead against her collarbone. “It’s like it’s there waiting for me, Em. Even when I was done with it for years. It was there all along.” His shoulders jumped with suppressed sobs. “Like it’s my shadow.”

I’m actually really glad I didn’t read the whole summary before starting this book – it made everything twist and turn, taking me along for the ride. It’s a beautifully well written novel about grief, addiction and love. A wholly unexpected tale and one I’m glad I picked up!

Male/female couple gazing at each other, text says 'I'm scared I'm falling in love with you.'

SPOILER WARNING

I haven’t read a book with this subject matter in a while, but I was immediately pulled into the story Lown has created.

After Emily’s father dies, she’s left with a house, photographs that don’t make sense, and a whole host of bad memories, guilt, anger and confusion. At her father’s funeral she meets Joe, who she knew briefly for a summer during her childhood. But she hasn’t seen or heard from him since. Joe, she discovers, remained close with her father, a fact made even more bewildering for Emily when everyone in her father’s circle tells her to steer clear of Joe. The reason, she soon learns, is Joe’s long time struggle with addiction to cocaine.

Despite the warnings, and her own growing apprehension, Emily falls for Joe hard and fast.

“Just trust me.”
“I want to,” Emily whispered against his shirt, eyeing the baggie on the ground as if it were an exposed landmine ready to destroy them both.

A man brushing a woman's hair back from her face.

Joe is such a complex character. Like Emily, he’s rough around the edges and not always likeable (when he uses he’s an awful jerk, but each time this occurs, Emily or another character tells him off and he apologises once he’s sober), but you still find yourself rooting for him to turn things around, get clean and be the man Emily (unlike her father’s friends) believe him to be. His use of drugs, of course, becomes the wedge between him and Emily. Luke, his best friend, tolerates his use, long having given up on trying to get Joe clean; her father, we learn, helped Joe get clean for three years, but he fell into bad habits again with an ex-girlfriend.

I really liked the part where Emily put her foot down and walked out on Joe after one too many bad moves on his part. My heart broke for Joe, too, but he was lying to her at every turn and I’m glad she stopped tolerating it. (Not to mention best friend Luke’s epic I will not be your go between moment. Good on ya, lad.) I know this all sounds bleak, but these characters are so easy to root for even when the subject matter gets as dark as it does. Like, it’s not Girl, Interrupted levels of dark; it’s more like Skins or Euphoria. I also really loved their relationship, which balanced out the dark moments (especially when his brother later shows up, ooooof). They were easy OTP material from the get go.

A couple passionately kissing on a boat, water, grasses and trees in the background.

I really liked Luke as a side character; Mary, too. The characters all feel real; actualised and dynamic. Emily is a character I found myself deeply empathising with. Yes, sometimes she was downright frustrating, especially when she jumped wildly to conclusions. But also? I so get why.

Lown made Emily so completely relatable that even when I wanted to scream at her, I also wanted to hug her and tell her everything was going to be okay. Her struggles with her parents left her so guarded and jaded; follow that up with her ex-boyfriend’s figurative knife to the heart and all she had to go through alone, and you get a lady who doesn’t trust anyone and often snaps, snarks and snipes at those trying to help her protect herself. She was such a colourful and believable character. Vibrant in a way that leapt off the page. And I think that is a feat solely down to Lown’s skills as an author. Tough, rough, gruff characters are incredibly tricky to write well, and I really liked how well Emily, and Joe, were woven together.

To that end, the writing in this novel is straight up fantastic. It flows so eloquently, and Lown spins beautiful prose. There are some seriously wonderful lines in this book and the story as a whole is utterly immersive. Hats off to the author, this is an impressive debut.

Thank you so much to the author for a review copy.

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