Review | The Christmas Lights by Karen Swan

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December 2018, and free-spirited Influencers Bo Loxley and her partner Zac are living a life of wanderlust, travelling the globe and sharing their adventures with their millions of fans. Booked to spend Christmas in the Norwegian fjords, they set up home in a remote farm owned by enigmatic mountain guide Anders and his fierce grandmother Signy. Surrounded by snowy peaks and frozen falls, everything should be perfect. But the camera can lie and with every new post, the ‘perfect’ life Zac and Bo are portraying is diverging from the truth. Something Bo can’t explain is wrong at the very heart of their lives and Anders is the only person who’ll listen.

June 1936, and fourteen-year old Signy is sent with her sister and village friends to the summer pastures to work as milkmaids, protecting the herd that will sustain the farm through the long, winter months. But miles from home and away from the safety of their families, threat begins to lurk in friendly faces . . .

The mountains keep secrets – Signy knows this better than anyone – and as Bo’s life begins to spiral she is forced, like the old woman before her, to question who is friend and who is foe.

When I requested this book on NetGalley – I have to be honest – I wasn’t expecting what I got. I read the title and saw the pretty book cover and thought, hey, this looks like a cute Christmas read for Winter! It is a cute Christmas read for Winter in some ways, however, it deals with so much more. In actual fact, it is a daring tale of love, destiny and the power of social media. I am glad that I did not know what I was going into when I began reading this book because I was pleasantly surprised to find the important issues that are tackled within it.

The first thing you notice when reading The Christmas Lights is the setting and how expertly Swan describes it. The book is set on the fjords of Norway – a beautiful and dangerous location for all that takes place. Swan is a master of illustrating the scenery, transporting the images the characters are seeing onto the page and then, clearly, into the reader’s head. Swan writes how:

the cliffs were like walls around them, unyielding and immovable, the stone streaked with ice like frozen tear tracks, as though the mountains themselves were weeping. (12%)

I am a huge fan of imagery and this is just one of many beautiful representations found in the book. The author transported me to the locations she was describing as, reading a particularly intense scene about the cold outside in Norway waterfall, I found myself having to put a jumper on as I began to shiver. Similarly, Swan then goes on to describe the warmth of a cafe with it’s whirring coffee machines, wooden booths and fireplace and I was forced to take that jumper back off, feeling the warmth of the cafe radiate off the page and into my room. Swan has an impressive ability to make you feel what she is describing, delivering you into the world she is creating.

The structure of The Christmas Lights is also skillfully handled as we move seamlessly between Bo in the present and Signy in the 1930s, both in the same beautiful setting of Norway. Bo and her fiance/boyfriend (it’s a little complicated), Zac, rent Signy’s farm in the present day in order to experience true Norwegian culture, as they do with every place they visit on their travels. We are also provided with accounts of Signy’s life as a young girl, working on another farm. To begin with, I did not understand the significance of the two connected stories and found myself wondering where the book was going. However, in the second half of the book, it becomes clear and we are met with a kind of dual-coming-of-age novel. Signy teaches Bo what she learned as a young girl – the importance of surrendering to your feelings. She tells her:

in every life, there is a defining moment of surrender where you must make a choice to let Destiny happen. You have to give yourself up to what must be….the most pivotal moments were always the ones beyond my control…It’s not about what happens to you; it’s about how you respond. (90%)

Both characters must learn to give themselves up to what is meant to be. There are multiple accounts, in both timeframes, of characters denying their feelings for fear of hurting others or ruining present circumstances. However, the novel teaches us that feelings cannot, and should not, be ignored as doing so will only make things worse and prevent future happiness. Signy teaches Bo that Destiny will take you down paths you may not wish to travel but that you must allow it to do so, reacting to what life throws at you, and you will end up where you are supposed to be. Though I have mixed opinions on the idea of Destiny, I do believe that everything happens for a reason and that we must adapt to life as it changes before us, trusting that we things will work out (within reason and depending on our circumstances, of course). I thought that this was a beautiful lesson for us all to learn, particularly the part about surrendering to our feelings as countless people remain in unhappy relationships due to fear of the unknown or fear of hurting others but really only prevent themselves and those involved from finding true happiness.

A very important and relevant issue that is tackled in The Christmas Lights is the effects and dangers of social media. Though the book does dive deep into how social media can pose a threat to our mental health, and even our lives, the central message is clear. We are a generation spending too much time focusing on capturing images and writing quirky captions rather than actually being present in the moment. We talk to people through screens, looking for justification and admiration in numbers, to the detriment of real relationships and real human contact. Bo and Zac have nearly 10 million followers on Instagram and a constant companion in their photographer, Lenny, meaning they never have a moment to themselves. Even moments that may seem personal are captured by Lenny as evidence of their loving relationship that the fans will go wild for. When Bo questions this, Lenny tells her “the reality is there’s always a picture frame around your life” and though we could argue that this is what people sign up for when they become “Instafamous”, is it right? Shouldn’t we all still be able to have moments to ourselves without feeling like we’re leaving people out? One of the lines that stood out most to me on this topic was when Bo considered how:

taking the selfie wasn’t about this actual moment but the ones that came after, when everyone else got to see it. The validation afterwards counted for more than the actual experience. (71%)

In this quote, she is talking about a fan who asked for a photo with her but she makes a point about social media in general. People are no longer living in the moment and enjoying their experiences but documenting it for validation from others. This brings to mind people who go to concerts and Snapchat the entire thing. They are not enjoying the moment they are in but watching it through a screen and putting it live for others to comment on.

The book also included some important commentary on gender, a twist I just did not see coming and a beautiful ending – all things I look for in a good book. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this book and would recommend it to others who enjoy some of the factors I have discussed. I want to say a huge thank you to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for providing me with a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read The Christmas Lights? Are you adding it to your TBR? Let me know in the comments below!



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