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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In her elegantly crafted second novel, Kathleen Cambor lives up to the promise reflected in her graceful debut, The Book of Mercy, taking readers inside the minds and hearts of people living on the verge of doom. In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden is set in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1899; there, on Memorial Day weekend, 2,200 lives were lost when heavy rains caused the South Fork Dam to burst, releasing a thunderous wall of water that crashed down upon the valley 450 feet below. But if the forces causing the Johnstown Flood were natural, the agencies that brought about the devastation of the city were human.
The South Fork Dam was the property of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which, despite repeated warnings, neglected to make the necessary repairs to ensure the dam's stability. As Cambor explores the lives of the club's elite members, such as the industrialists Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon, blame mounts like the ultimate death toll. "These men who kept obsessive track of all their holdings, their vast properties," writes Cambor, "had no interest in the safety or the structure of the dam. It was as if no people lived below it, no world existed in the mountains but the one they were creating." But Cambor avoids demonizing the moguls, painting them in an utterly human light; we encounter them as characters whose hopes have been squelched by obligation to family, as lovers hollowed by loss, and as new men haunted by past failures.
Likewise, in Johnstown, although there are many victims, there are few innocents. Frank Fallon, a Civil War veteran and foreman at the Cambria Iron Company, lusts for Grace McIntyre, a librarian with a secret past -- and his troubled wife's best friend. And although Fallon's son Daniel is in love with Nora Talbot, a naturalist (and member of the elite club upstream), he nevertheless sleeps with a secretary at the mill to acquire records of the deaths and maimings that occurred there.
Death and loss -- through epidemics, war, and gruesome accidents -- are a constant in the lives of these characters. Cambor drives at meaning through her characters' struggles, for every glimpse of their suffering and every fleeting moment of ease is tinted with dark foreknowledge of the apocalypse to come. Her characters are flooded with memories that both preserve and warp their histories, forever haunting their spirits even in the act of healing. With In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, Kathleen Cambor reveals not only the devastating fragility of life but also the unseen fault lines beneath the surface of the human heart. (Elise Vogel)
Elise Vogel is a freelance writer living in New York City.