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Speed of Light, Joy Cowley

January 29, 2015

Speed of Light Book blurbspeed of light

“With a father more interested in money than family, a brother in prison, a sister with a secret, and a mother in denial, it’s no wonder Jeff buries himself in the safe world of mathematics.
When a storm hits Wellington, a strange old woman is blown into Jeff’s life, challenging everything he thinks is true.”  ~ from the back of the book

Speed of Light First Page

WIND VELOCITY: Wind speed is accurately measured by an anemometer; but there is an older way of estimating wind force by observing its effect on the environment. The 13-grade Beaufort Scale measures wind from 0 (“Calm”, at 2 km/h) to 12 (“Hurricane”, at over 119 km/h). Number 10 on the Beaufort Scale is “Storm”, with 100 km/h winds and 9-metre waves. In a storm, trees can be uprooted and damage to buildings is likely.

The house had been built on the highest point, its snout over the sea, sniffing every change in the weather. If you stood against the low front wall, you had no awareness of the earth beneath, only sky and, far below, a blue bathtub of harbour floating toy boats. Like a space station, Jeff thought, like a glass and concrete laboratory, not a house, no, nothing house-like except the furniture that came from their old place. They had moved nine plus four months ago but he still felt he needed permission to open the smooth black cupboards in the kitchen. No catches. A magic touch with a finger and they sprang open, surprising you with ordinary things like orange juice and cans of tomato soup.” (pp.9-10)

Ref: Joy Cowley (2014) Speed of Light. Gecko Press: Wellington

Themes in the novel


Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Speed of Light

There were a couple of things that struck me about this novel. Consider:

  • Obviously family dynamics are at the heart of this story. The Lorimers are a broken family at the start of this novel, but the cracks are only barely showing to the outside world (NB p.144-145). By the time the novel closes, many of these cracks have been strengthened and repaired (NB p.201).
  • What kind of attitudes do Jeff’s father and mother have towards each of their children (and perhaps towards children in general) at the start of this story? How do their attitudes change through the course of this novel? What changes them? Consider Jeff’s discussion about his future with his father – and Winston’s belief that his own father had “sorted him out” when he wanted to be a diver as a boy. Jeff queries this, saying: “”Mum says Grandpa Lorimer used to beat you with his belt doubled over.” Winston actually laughed. “Kids don’t always know what is best for them.”” (p.15)
  • Notably, we are given another family to compare Jeff’s with: We go into Paul’s home and see how full of loving disorder it is. His parents even comment on the nature of family to jeff: “La familia es todo.” Paul’s mother tells Jeff; “”Family is everything,” Paul translated.” (p.104)What effect do descriptions of Paul’s homelife have on our interpretation of Jeff’s family and our reading of this story?
  • Consider Helen and Winston’s argument over the purchase of the house and land in Sydney:
    “It was an investment!” Winston looked confused. He put his hand up in a helpless gesture as though he was trying to clear the air of words. “I did it for you, Helen! I did it for my family!” “No! You did it for greed,” said Helen, “and now your family will be homeless.” He lurched forward, angry now. “Will you bloody well shut up? We’ll get the money back. Eventually. Until then we can rent a house.” He held his hands out to her, his voice shaking. “All of it, Helen, everything I did, was for family!”
    “You have no family, Winston,” she said.
    “Stop!” Jeff cried. “Stop it!”
    “You destroyed us!” Helen said. “Your children, one by one, and now me. Yes, me, Winston Lorimer! If this house goes, so do I.”
    Winston hit her.” (p.134)
  • Obviously, the Lorimers’ house is pretty central to the story. We know that from the beginning. The house is a character in its own right and I particularly liked how the novel opened with this house:
    “The house had been built on the highest point, its snout over the sea, sniffing every change in the weather. If you stood against the low front wall, you had no awareness of the earth beneath, only sky and, far below, a blue bathtub of harbour floating toy boats. Like a space station, Jeff thought, like a glass and concrete laboratory, not a house, no, nothing house-like except the furniture that came from their old place. They had moved nine plus four months ago but he still felt he needed permission to open the smooth black cupboards in the kitchen. No catches. A magic touch with a finger and they sprang open, surprising you with ordinary things like orange juice and cans of tomato soup.” (pp.9-10)
    You get a sense of its importance to the tale. It stands separate from the events of the community below. Jeff never feels he belongs there “In a reckless moment, Jeff had told kids at school that their new house had its own movie cinema. Some believed him. The others just laughed. A locked gate meant there weren’t any unplanned visits, so his friends had no factual evidence. Winston had promised he could get a couple of DVDs and bring the whole class up for a movie night, but it hadn’t happened and now Jeff got tired thinking about it.” (p.20) The house serves as a barrier between Jeff and the social support network otherwise available to him through the boys at school. His father can’t see that and makes no effort to create a home out of this house for his son. Winston’s desperate need to have this big, fancy house certainly to more and more trouble and its sale is inextricably intertwined with the family’s reconnecting (in a smaller, homier place) at the end of the novel.
    NB p.159; 113; 178
  • NB Again, the Fitzgibbon’s house stands in stark contrast to Jeff’s: “The noise in the Fitzgibbon house had a good feeling to it, like the noise in a farmyard.” (p.103) Whereas Jeff’s ‘house’ is gated and isolated, Paul’s ‘home’ is busy and open and full of life.
  • Of course, when we first meet this family, they are all shut off from each other. There is a total lack of communication and concern for each other that the big house on the hill embodies with its inaccessible cupboards, its gates and its many separate rooms. Andrea has two boyfriends and only Jeff knows there is a second, but even he doesn’t know who the second boyfriend is (p.43). Beck (and any correspondence with him) is a big family secret – a source of shame to Jeff’s parents. Andrea has figured out a way to receive letters from their brother (in jail overseas), but can’t share them with Beck openly (p.22; 29). Communication with Beck makes his sense of family come alive for Jeff and Beck’s letters are like gold to Jeff and Andrea (“they leaned over the paper, picking up each word like some kind of treasure, aware that Beck’s hand had shaped them.” (p.39). But, in his letters, even Beck can’t talk openly and Andrea has to ‘decode’ the words for Jeff (p.39) to tell him how horrible things are for Beck. NB also: communication is overtly discussed and shown to be problematic p.90; 93; 99-100; 139-143
  • Beckett is dead” (p.39) to Jeff’s mother and father and it is this barrier of hurt that seems to be at the heart of their failing family. How is Beckett characterised? We never meet him, even though things change for his character during the course of this novel. What does he add, as a character, to the story?
  • The need for an almost magical removal of this house from the family’s lives is hinted at by the discussion of Oz early on in the novel (p.22). Like Dorothy, and in spite of the impenetrable defenses of their fancy gated house, a powerful storm brings a magical old lady into the Lorimers’ lives (“A tornado picked her up and dumped her in your place.” (p.35)). I think there is also a bit of a play on words here (Oz (Wizard of Oz) / Oz (Australia)) and, while the family’s troubles don’t exactly start with the hustler who pretends to sell them a big magical “kingdom” (p.134) in Sydney, Winston’s focus on that yellow brick road certainly leads to disillusion and to resolution of the troubles already in their lives.
  • Naturally, the first and easiest explanation for the appearance of this little old lady inside the gated confines of their house is dementia (p.32), but Jeff knows there is more to it than that. “Somehow, she was connected with all the old ladies from childhood fairy tales, the one who lived in a shoe, the one who swallowed a fly, the wild witches from Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. That wasn’t logical, of course, but then neither was an elderly woman inside a gate that could not be opened from the outside.” (p.33)
    NB also chapter 8; p.108; 169
  • The little old lady helps the whole family, but she helps them through Jeff, and perhaps Jeff is particularly influenced. What influence does she have on Jeff? How does she help his family?
  • The little old lady as magical being does not fit inside a rational view of the world and Jeff, who has been drawing on the security of numbers and science for some time (perhaps in an attempt to stabilise the uncertain world of his family, eg. p.19; 70), finds it very hard at first to accept that she exists outside of such reason. Jeff “hated change that came without warning, suddenness that unsettled things. It was like living in a horror movie where surprises jumped out at you at every turn and you had to deal with them, somehow making them fit into your life. He excused himself and went to his room, opened his maths homework book and flicked through the pages. Prime factorisation. Regular and irregular polygons. Volumes of cubes and prisms. But he couldn’t anchor his thoughts. He put his hand over his forehead, wanting to still all the stuff that was going on in there. Too much, far too much! The human brain had about one hundred billion cells. He didn’t know who had done the counting but it was impressive. One hundred billion! If every one of those cells was the size of a star, a planet, each human brain would be bigger than an entire galaxy. At this moment, his head galaxy was totally out of control. He looked for numbers that he could hold. Three hundred and thirty-three multiplied by three made nine hundred and ninety-nine.” (p.55-56)
    For a while, after meeting Maisie, you could say that “the numbers kept changing” (p.158) on Jeff. However, before she passes on, during a visit “He realised that he had stopped counting her breaths. It didn’t matter. He didn’t need to hold her by counting. Something better had happened.” (p.155) Eventually, he realises “The things she’d told him had made a fantastically good story and parts of it slid over into his truth.” (p.170) That’s not to say his fascination with numbers goes away, though (pp.188; 191; 195)!
  • NB Talking to Dmitri Mendeleev, Jeff announces “There is more to the universe than numbers.” Then he wondered why he had said it. It was true, but he didn’t know the truth until he’d heard it in his own voice.” (p.111)
  • So, how are ‘science’ and ‘mathematics‘, as concepts, treated in the novel? Consider the way each chapter opens with a snippet of information on wind velocity (chapter 1) or the properties of light (chapter 11) or the fibonacci numbers (chapter 8). What do these add to the reading experience? What relevance does each blurb have to the chapter it precedes?
  • Consider Jeff’s thoughts on it all when he considers the explanation for dream keepers that the little old lady, Maisie, gives him:
    “He looked at his notes. He hadn’t written all the old woman had said, but the words he’d scribbled prompted his memory and he was able to fill most of the blanks. It wasn’t craziness, he decided. It was a story, like Maui and his brothers netting the sun, like Orpheus going into the underworld to find that girl with the strange name. It was one of those stories that had echoes in it, vibrations, like patterns of numbers. The patterns meant something but he didn’t know what. Maybe only a “dream-keeper” could offer a mathematical sequence that made sense of the story.” (p.130)
  • Why the title? What is the importance of light in the novel? (NB p.74-75; 85; 105; 128; 170; 186; 199; 202)
  • What is the importance of the storm? (NB “storms have their uses. They say a calm sea never makes a good captain.” p.194)
  • What role does the teacher, Mrs Wilson, play in this story? She’s not insignificant (if any character could be considered insignificant to a story). And why the interest in her age (p.94; 181)?
  • Actually, the concepts of truth and reality come up a few times. How and why? NB p.44; 81; 83; 87; 88; 90; 183, etc
  • and that’s not even touching on the ideas that Maisie comes out with about life and death and whatnot…

Texts that invite comparison

Perhaps any novel that treats with the above themes:

The modern shape of home and family; Rachael King’s Red Rocks, Margaret Mahy’s fiction, VM Jones’ fiction… oh and a million others.

As I’ve commented before, I always find the inclusion of elderly characters interesting, because they so often are omitted or made out of cliches. As mentioned above, Jeff links this little old lady to all the little old ladies of folklore. What role does she play in this tale? Is it in any way unique from the roles played by the little old ladies in folklore? Could you compare her to the elderly characters of other adolescent fiction or folkloric tales? NB age is discussed  (eg. p.72-73; 82)NB also p.68

Margaret Mahy has written a few interesting novels in which she draws on the magic of science to tell a tale (The Catalogue of the Universe, for example). These might provide interesting similarities/differences to compare and contrast.

In fact, consider what Margaret Mahy had to say (in her ‘Dissolving Ghost’ essay) on the thread that holds all beliefs together:

“I am going to propose that there is a code in our lives, something we automatically recognise when we encounter it in the outside world, something personal, but possibly primeval too, something which gives form to our political responses, to our art, our religious feeling, sometimes to our science and even to the way the weather forecast may be presented as a little drama. It is something eagerly recognised in children, so perhaps there is no first encounter. Perhaps it is already in them. My own experience of it has been that, by giving experience a recognisable structure to mould itself around, it makes it easier to recall and to use. This code makes use of cause and effect, though sometimes it precedes and transcends this necessary relationship. It can be suspected or duplicated but I don’t think it can be really dismantled. Broken into bits, it starts to reassemble itself like the Iron Man described by Ted Hughes, and creeps back into our lives patient but inexorable.
I am referring to story, something we encounter in childhood and live with all our lives. Without the ability, to tell or live prescribed stories we lose the ability to make sense of our lives.”

At first, numbers do something similar for Jeff; do things change for him in the telling of this tale?

Actually, speaking of The Catalogue of the Universe – and probably of Mahy’s work in general – I am fond of stories in which the house becomes a character. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence, but I always enjoy that infusion of life and meaning into the houses of the characters. There is a lot of research into how our physical environment reflects the culture we live in, so it’s not at all bizarre to find a focus on something so inanimate in fiction. Still, comparing the character and role of houses in literature could be interesting – and could prove revealing.

Cowley’s Speed of Light: a History

Publishing History:

Classed as fiction for ages 11+ and published by Gecko Press, Speed of Light was only published last year so there isn’t much of a history (in terms of criticism, at least).

Joy Cowley (2014) Speed of Light. Gecko Press: Wellington

Bibliography of secondary literature:

Author information:


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