In Katie Arnold-Ratliff’s debut novel, Bright Before Us, we watch our unlikeable but sympathetic narrator Francis Mason tumble into responsibility and adulthood.
Sudden rain, shouts from fisherman on a boat, a cluster of second-grade students gathered by some rocks: something’s wrong on this field trip to a beach in San Francisco. There’s confusion as the teacher in charge, Francis Mason, rushes toward the scene and tries to do just that: take charge. When he discovers “beside a slick tangle of brown kelp, the body,” the sight tips him over an emotional divide that he was ready—waiting—to slide down.
So begins Bright Before Us, Katie Arnold-Ratliff’s first novel, an assured piece of work. The opening chapter is an example, with its immediate tension, tight language, and impressionistic portrayal of the chaos. Arnold-Ratliff trusts her readers enough not to spell out exactly what’s happening on the beach. And we in return sense that we’re in the hands of a storyteller who knows her story well and is patient enough to let it unfold as it needs to.
Francis is a mess. His early twenties have brought him to a place far below where he expected to be. “Debt had aged us,” he says of him and his wife. “We were in our early twenties and poor in a way that felt like being ground into a fine powder.” His less-than-lucrative teaching job doesn’t help, and his wife is four-months pregnant. The episode on the beach adds more pressure: there are parents to call, police reports to file, children to sooth. More importantly, the stress sinks him into memories of his former lover, Nora, to whom most of the book is addressed. He retreats into the past, feeding on that obsession: “As though I could look deep inside you and see not you, but a reflection of myself. As though you could tell me, on a daily basis, who I was.” But the world won’t relent with its stubborn wish for him: to face our messes as adults. In other words, to grow up.
Arnold-Ratliff does an admirable job of boxing in Francis. He goes back to the classroom as if nothing happened on the beach. Concerned parents accumulate in the corners of his classroom. The principal questions his suitability to teach. He takes short trips to his glove compartment for pills to get him through the day. He is quick to snap at his pregnant wife, and the tension in their marriage is painfully domestic, told with all the morning breath and routine of a relationship gone limp.
Above it all floats Nora, a childhood friend-turned-lover during a week-long affair following the death of her parents—an impulsive spell when the urges behind their platonic history bring them together for days in bed, “eager to return to our private undertow.” Nora’s pull is strong, and Francis begins to conflate her absence in his life with the body on the beach, weaving them together in lies to his wife and the police.
Arnold-Ratliff not only tightens the noose around Francis but lets him hang a bit. We can’t see how Francis can pull it together, but he manages to make it through another class, another silent hour at home, barely, propped up by drugs and drink and lies that will only make the collapse, when and if it comes, all the more inevitable. One moment involves a student in the cloakroom and how a simple case of punishment, at the hands of Francis’ frustration, goes one gesture too far. We flinch, but that’s good for the story. Arnold-Ratliff is willing to push her character where others might have let him off too easy.
He’s a tough guy to like. Often times we want his wife to kick him out of the bed or the house. We believe he gets exactly what he deserves. But so does he, and this helps to soften him. More redemption comes from his occasional, simple, poignant observations, such as his view about the fickleness of the children he teaches: “As soon as I figured them out, they weren’t them anymore.”
Yet, for all of Francis’ reflection about his time with Nora and the challenges of his marriage, we still feel shut out. We wonder why his reaction to the body is so extreme and why he holds himself so cruelly accountable for his failure to take charge. Arnold-Ratliff uses understatement to fine effect in many places, but key moments go unexamined. Take the conversation early on when Francis tells his wife that he and the children witnessed the person—the body—jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. We know that didn’t happen, and yet we doubt ourselves, because Francis doesn’t acknowledge the lie; it doesn’t register in his mind or emotions. The effect is unnecessary confusion, especially since Francis is our narrator, recollecting these events after the fact. It would be much more engaging to fully experience the lie with him.
Also, Arnold-Ratliff chooses to italicize the book’s dialogue, which fits with the blurriness that Francis feels toward his life and memories. But it also distances the reader further, as though a gauzy layer has been draped over the story. We know Francis’ senses are as dreamy and amorphous as the San Francisco fog, but to empathize with him more and experience the tension of his impending crash, we need to feel the sweat on his skin during his evasions and increasing paranoia.
Still, there’s plenty to admire about Bright Before Us. The story shows us how the past has the power to erode the present, especially when love is concerned. The author patiently leads Francis—and us—through the heartbreaking, very human work of becoming an adult and letting someone go.