Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief? Well, perhaps not, but the array of characters Frances Fyfield collects in Staring at the Light are equally varied: lawyer, dentist, IRA bomber, artist, nun....
A maverick London lawyer, Sarah Fortune finds herself protecting Cannon Smith, a talented artist with a prison record, a wife he loves deeply, and an unfortunate handicap: a twin brother, Johnny, whose need to believe that he is the most important figure in Cannon's life sails effortlessly beyond the threshold of mental health and into psychopathy. Long ago, the brothers were inseparable, but now they've taken different paths--and Johnny doesn't like that at all. He is determined to bring Cannon back to him, and no one is exempt from playing a pawn in his murderous game: not Sarah; not her Aunt Pauline, a nun who is sheltering Cannon's terrified wife; not William Dalrymple, one of Sarah's eccentric retinue of lovers and a dentist whose chair becomes a horrific centerpiece that will make most readers remember Marathon Man shudderingly.
Sarah's blithe, brittle independence is her hallmark: "She was perfectly comfortable living alone with her inexplicable devotions.... She seemed to have turned into a bit of a gypsy, encumbered with a small mortgage and very little else, her ambitions lessening with each succeeding year." But whereas Sara Paretsky's very insistence on V.I. Warshawski's wise-cracking solitude, for example, paradoxically signals that those still waters run as deep as Lake Michigan, Fyfield's determination to turn her heroine into a lone London gun merely renders Sarah as a two-dimensional woman with a commitment phobia.
The novel does, however, possess more than its fair share of vibrant, subtly sketched characters. Cannon Smith, trapped by memories of his own loyalty, must realize that even the most desperate efforts to achieve happiness may fall silently short: "There was not really anywhere to hide. From a ghost. A legend he no longer quite knew. From his own heart and the lure of destruction. From his own nature. From a world where he still did not understand the rules." And William Dalrymple, in his halting attempts to escape his personal and professional failings, and his terrified retreats into the comforting solitude of plaster molds and porcelain veneers, is a figure of ineffable pathos and shy courage. Fyfield's skill may even convince you that Willy Loman has thrown over sales in favor of dentistry, putting down his traveling case for good and picking up a drill and scalpel in its place. --Kelly Flynn