By Light Alone is a novel by Adam Roberts and it set in a quasi-modern setting, however, this world has been revolutionised by the introduction of photosynthetic hair. The introduction of the hair has eliminated hunger, but other problems have ensured that human misery and affluence have never been further apart. The book begins with a rich couple going on holiday with their teenage daughter; George and Marie are the parents and have taken the decision along with many rich people of cutting their hair and eating food instead. They go skiing to Mount Ararat and one day their daughter Leah is kidnapped, Leah's disappearance is the start of the novel and from this point on all the main characters subtly change.
The novel is told in the first person narrative but the identity of the first person does alter from chapter to chapter, however, the first half of the novel is solely in George's voice. He is devastated by the disappearance of his daughter and confused by the exposure to a seedy sub-life he was blissfully unaware off, one of the best parts of the book is the feeling the author gives of a society on the brink of chaos but only viewed through myopic rich man's eyes. There are constant suggestions of wars, oppression and poverty but George is never told what the back stories are and we share his frustrations of never truly understanding what's going on.
This book has some wonderfully colourful moments, the disdain of the rich for the poor having to grow their hair, the need to work and the dislike of watching the news. This dislike of the news also adds to the sense of a community displaced from the mass populace, there is also the sense that the invention of photosynthetic hair far from helping the poor only puts them into a form of medieval serfdom where death can be handed out by simply cutting a peasants hair.
Leah does return, I'm not revealing anything here as its part of the books sleeve, and her return changes not only the characters but the nature of the composition of the book because from the point of her return we have sections in other people's voices such as Leah and Marie. Here the author explores how two people can view the same events and take completely different interpretations but the central voice is still George, he dominates the novel with his move from altruistic rich man to a man more in touch with the poor. Marie the snobbish appalling wife is the arte noir villain and Leah a left-wing touchy feel good return to nature.
Adam Roberts writes intelligent and challenging novels, his books always have more than one thing going on and the reader often feels like he's on the edge of the action looking in and not understanding the bigger picture. This is his most complex novel and the use of a modern setting to address society's problems through the simple addition of hair that can sustain is brilliant, the imagination to take that concept into how the world would handle it is also very clever and engaging. However, some authors could turn the whole concept into a piece of literary dryness and make the story almost unreadable but Roberts manages to engage the reader to his characters and we can sympathise with George after he's lost his daughter or Marie after she loses her husband and slowly her mind.
I enjoyed reading the novel but it took a bit of digesting at times, however, I kept going and was pleased to get to the end and find out why Leah was kidnapped and what happens to George.