Kate Brandt Reviews THE LIGHTNESS by Emily Temple

I am so excited and honoured to post this review by a new Buddhist Fiction Blog Contributing Editor, Kate Brandt. Kate works as a teacher trainer in adult literacy at the City University of New York, and has studied Buddhism for many years.  She is a graduate of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, and has published in Tricycle, the Buddhist Review, Literary Mama, Talking Writing, the Westchester Review, and Ginosko.  Welcome Kate!

Review of The Lightness by Emily Temple

Kate Brandt

What makes a work of fiction “Buddhist?”  For me, as a reader and long-time student of Buddhism, the answer would be that it engages with Buddhist concepts—the Four Noble Truths, the concept of No-Self, to name a few.  The Lightness certainly engages with Buddhism.  And it performs a difficult feat:  showing the impetus that leads to spiritual aspiration while staying rooted in the world of human attachments and concerns.

The Lightness is Olivia’s story, told in first person, of the summer she spent at a place called The Levitation Center, a “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls.”  “Boot camp,” of course, is tongue-in-cheek—the “campers” take part in activities like meditation, ikebana, Zen archery, yoga, and of course, work assignments like kitchen duty or weeding in the garden.  In between, they do the things that teenaged girls do—talk about each other; sneak out at night and engage in clandestine rituals; yearn.

There are two especially magnetic characters at the Levitation Center.  Luke, the gardener, is introduced to us first through the eyes of Olivia’s first friends at camp:

“He’s kind of a legend…a prodigy…our own personal holy man…he does something to the plants…no one knows what it is.” 

All the girls imagine themselves in his arms; he himself has perfected the art of elusiveness.  And then there is Serena, a fellow camper, beautiful and even more mysterious:

What was known about Serena: that she was in part Tibetan…that no, obviously she was an heiress…that actually she was a gypsy princess…that she’d slept with a teacher…that she was a virgin. 

Serena is the leader of the group of girls Olivia eventually joins.  She is unpredictable, and therefore, like Luke, someone you can never quite hold on to.

But there is another, even more enigmatic figure that beckons Olivia: her father.  It is from her father that Olivia has learned what she knows about Buddhism, and he is the reason she has come to the Levitation Center.  He has left her, and the Levitation Center is the last place she knew him to be.  Throughout the novel, flashbacks to conversations Olivia has had with her father reveal the Buddhist ideals she has grown up with:

Let me ask you this,” my father said.  “Where is the self?  Can you point to it?  Can you tell me what color it is?  No, not your sternum.  Not your eye.  Your Olivia.”

He shaped her.  Now he is gone.

That is the salient feature of Olivia’s father: he is gone.  Like Siddhartha himself, for all of his elegant detachment, Olivia’s father is essentially a deadbeat dad.  His absence points to a tension at the heart of Buddhism that I have always struggled with:  Buddhism teaches detachment, but under the guise of being peaceful, can one be too detached—as in, uncaring? 

Olivia’s pain and bewilderment at this abandonment is what drives the novel.  Nor is Olivia the only one of her friends who harbors a secret wound.  Another in the group has panic attacks.  Yet another has been abandoned not by one parent, but by both.  In response to this disappointment in the world, this dukkha, they follow the path of Siddhartha:  they seek to transcend. 

In The Lightness, the desire to transcend takes the form of a quest.  Throughout their summer at the camp, the girls are determined to learn to levitate—to actually rise into the air.  They try a variety of methods to achieve this:  getting Luke, the gardener, to teach them; breathing and thought exercises; not eating; special teas.  It is Serena who is most determined to achieve this: as we learn towards the end of the novel, she has the most grief to rise above, the most pain to leave behind. 

This central metaphor of the novel—the desire to rise above it all—tells a truth about spiritual seeking that many of us, I believe, will recognize.  Siddhartha left his palace, discovered what life is truly about—short, painful, and then we die—and decided to throw away his easy life, go into the forest to meditate, and find an answer.  Like him, each of us at one point realizes that, as writer Mark Epstein put it, life is a catastrophe.  We are disappointed, and the impulse is to leave in some way.  Slip out of the house, and go into the forest to figure it all out.  Rise into the air and out of sight.  In this way, I found The Lightness told a satisfying truth about spiritual longing.

A disappointment I felt was Olivia’s repudiation of Buddhism—indeed of all religion.  Towards the end of the novel, Olivia declares “I have decided I hate religion.”  Perhaps this was inevitable.  Her father introduced her to Buddhism, and through his absence and fecklessness, he has rejected her.  So Buddhism—in fact, religion in general–is rejected as well.  Too bad that the belief system got thrown out with the character who introduced her to it.  Too many books about religion, I feel, take it up only to reject it. 

I will not spoil the book by revealing whether the girls achieve their quest.  Let’s just say that while transcendence is not achieved by all, it is not presented as impossible, either.  I loved this book and highly recommend it.  For anyone who has studied Buddhism—for anyone at all, really, who has experienced loss, and quested for answers, The Lightness is a compelling and worthy read.

Pub info:  The Lightness by Emily Temple, William Morrow, New York, NY, 2020

Post Script on The Importance of Genre: A Poetic Scandal in Contemporary Buddhist Literature

After posting about the literary scandal caused by last year’s publication of The First Free Women by Weingast, I received a wonderful email from Bhikkhu K. He directed me to two websites that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

1. Sutta Central has full and complex translations of every verse in the Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Nuns). The original Pāli verses are given and translations by various authors and in a variety of languages are offered. Below is a picture of the links given to translations and original versions of the first verse in the Therīgāthā. This is quite a remarkable resource!

2. Bhikkhu K. has set up a comprehensive website entitled firstfreewomen.org that has so many resources regarding the Therīgāthā and Weingast’s “reimagining.”

The site has links to essays that provide a full background to the publication and follow on discussions and concerns. It has suggestions for actions you can take to voice your concerns about Shambhala’s publication and their handling of the situation.

Most important to this issue are side by side comparisons of Therīgāthā verse translations by scholars like K.R. Norman’s with Weingast’s “reimagining”, followed by commentary regarding the differences between the versions. This is an unparalleled resource and should not be overlooked by Buddhists or by scholars of Buddhist literature, Buddhist poetry, women in Buddhism, Buddhist monasticism, I could go on. See for yourself in the screenshot below from firstfreewomen.org.

Thank you Bhikkhu for bringing all of this to my attention!

Read With Me

Hello Buddhist fiction readers. By a happy accident, I have double copies of three books I intend to review for this blog. Instead of returning them, I thought it would be fun to offer to send a book to anyone who would like to read and discuss it with me, thereby contributing to the review.

I hope to post reviews of these novels starting in April, 2021. Please email me at buddhistfictionblogger@gmail.com if you would like me to send you a book from the three depicted below. First come, first served.

Amazon blurbs for each book are listed below the picture.

The Green Eyed Lama by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L. Falt. Independently published, 2018.

Amazon Blurb: “”THE GREEN-EYED LAMA” IS THE BEST NOVEL EVER WRITTEN ABOUT MONGOLIA” (JACK WEATHERFORD)THE FIRST MONGOLIAN NOVEL EVER PUBLISHED IN THE WEST!AN AWARD-WINNING, DECADE-LONG BESTSELLER IN MONGOLIA.The year is 1938. The newly-installed communist government of Mongolia, under orders from Moscow, has launched a nation-wide purge. Before it ends, nearly a tenth of the country’s population will be murdered.A young nomadic herds-woman named Sendmaa falls in love with Baasan, a talented and handsome Buddhist lama. Baasan resolves to leave the priesthood and marry Sendmaa, but her scheming neighbor persuades Baasan’s brother, Bold, to ask for Sendmaa’s hand in marriage first. Their love triangle is engulfed by tragedy when Mongolia’s Stalin moves to crush the Buddhist faith.Baasan is arrested. Sendmaa, Bold, and the other northern herders are branded counter-revolutionaries, and their herds are confiscated.As the country teeters toward war, Baasan is sentenced to death as a class enemy. But an improbable ally, a lama turned “KGB” agent, intervenes in a way that reaches all the way to Franklin Roosevelt. Still, Baasan must summon every bit of his talent and ingenuity if he’s to survive the gulag, reunite with Sendmaa, and help save the Buddhist faith.The Green-Eyed Lama is based on a true story. Nearly all of the book’s characters are referred to by their real names. Written originally in English, it was published in Mongolian in 2008, and has been a bestseller in Mongolia for 10 years. The Green-Eyed Lama is the first Mongolian novel to be published in the West. In November 2017, the French publishing house Grasset Editions published the novel in French under the title Le Moine Aux Yeux Verts.”

Winter Into Spring by Liz Unser. Blank Page Press, 2020.

Amazon Blurb: “Elin Petersen knew that she was fortunate; dreamy husband, stunning home, plenty of friends and plenty of money. Who caused it all to come crashing down? How could she deal with the loneliness, money worries and failed relationships that followed? Elin’s wake-up call comes in the guise of new friends Mia, Chrissie and Cecilia. They enjoy life, love, dancing and fun and suggest that Elin could change the part she plays in the drama of her own life.She lands a great new job. But career satisfaction and financial security come with a complication, a drop-dead gorgeous father of two, an enigma who doesn’t talk about his wife.Finally understanding that happy endings don’t come neatly packaged, Elin heads off to the next challenge, fully aware that she must make her own happiness along the way.Winter into Spring interweaves life struggles with musings on female friendship and practical Buddhist philosophy.”

Whisper of the Lotus by Gabrielle Yetter. Independently Published, 2020.

Amazon Blurb: “A buzz sounded from inside Charlotte’s handbag, so she stopped and fumbled for the mobile phone she’d switched on after landing. Surely nobody would be contacting her here.
Her fingers curled around it and she flipped open the case and checked the message: Welcome to Cambodia, Charlotte. You have 57 days

Sometimes you have to go a long way from home to come full circle back to discover what was right in front of you
Charlotte’s mundane, dead-end life lacked excitement. She never imagined that sitting on a plane to Cambodia, struggling with her fear of flying, would lead to her being befriended by Rashid, an old man whose tragic secret would take her on a mystery tour of discovery.

In a land of golden temples, orange-clad monks, and smiling people, Charlotte discovers nothing is as she’d expected. She also never imagined the journey would take her back to the night when her father walked out on the family.
And who was Rashid? Was he just a kindly old man, or was there something deeper sewn into the exquisite fabric of his life?

From the author of The Definitive Guide to Living in Southeast Asia: Cambodia and Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of AdventureWhisper of the Lotus is a multi-layered story about friendship and family, love and identity, set in an exotic, magical country in Southeast Asia.”

The Importance of Genre: A Poetic Scandal in Contemporary Buddhist Literature

“Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes.” — Günter Grass 1

Fair warning. This post is long and tends to ramble, but I think it is worth the read.

One year ago, almost to the day, Shambhala Publications published and distributed a book of poetry by Matty Weingast entitled The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns. The Amazon blurb for the book describes how Weingast has “reimagined” the poems of the Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Nuns), poems composed by the first Buddhist nuns about 2500 years ago.

I have taken inspiration from and enjoyed the poetry of the Therīgāthā for years. Like most readers, I am in awe of Subhā’s dramatic story rendered in roughly thirty verses (read here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.14.01.than.html ). 2 That said, at this stage of my life I resonate more with verses about aging by Ambapali (read here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.13.01.than.html). The verses of this collection narrate Buddhist experiences as lived by women in harsh, patriarchal times. They represent lived Buddhism. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu’s translations linked herein are respectful of the original verses and cognizant of their context. I also appreciate Charles Hallisey’s 2015 translation that you can find on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Therigatha-Poems-Buddhist-Classical-Library/dp/0674427734/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=therigatha+charles+hallisey&qid=1613138212&s=books&sr=1-2

The contextual importance of the poems of the Therīgāthā, originally written in Pāli, cannot be overstated. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu describes the Therīgāthā as the “earliest extant text depicting women’s spiritual experiences” because some of the poems date back to the late 6th century BCE. And these poems are considered sacred text by Buddhists. The 73 poems in 16 chapters are part of the Pāli Canon and can be found in the Khuddaka Nikāya section of the Sutta Piṭaka. In fact, you can read them in Pāli and in translation by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu on the Access to Insight website here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/index.html When you do read them, receive them respectfully, in their specific cultural and historical contexts. For as I aim to reveal in this post, approach matters.

What was the context of Weingast’s reimagining? What does this reimagining entail? Not translation, apparently. Weingast has noted that he cannot translate Pāli. He read translated versions of the poems and reimagined their essential meanings while he was practicing meditation and living with a group of Buddhist nuns. This situation does not constitute a replication of the context out of which the Therīgāthā was written. So how does a white American male begin to think that reimagining poems originally written by the first female Buddhist nuns living in an ancient culture in what is now southern Nepal/northern India is a good idea? And how does a Buddhist publication house like Shambhala support this reimagining?

The copyright page of Weingast’s book shows that the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data lists him as the translator, which formally categorizes the book as a translation. Under “Subjects” is clearly written: “Buddhist poetry – translations into English” and “Pali poetry – translations into English.” In effect, even though Weingast’s poetry is described as a “reimagining”, Shambhala is marketing this book as a translation.

I first learned about these translation transgressions from Twitter tweets, but Bodhipaksa of Fake Buddha Quotes states that Buddhist nun Ayya Sudhamma was the first to bring the issue to light last November in a discussion forum post on Sutta Central (link here: https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/from-lioness-roars-to-purrs-a-review-of-the-first-free-women-by-matty-weingast-therigatha/17940 )

In a later post on the website Fake Buddha Quotes, in an effort to more clearly explicate the situation, Bodhipaksa compares, word for word, Weingast’s reimagining of a poem by the nun Nanduttarā against a seminal translation of the same poem by K.R. Norman. In Weingast’s reimagining, Nanduttarā is unenlightened, still afflicted by sexual longings of a past promiscuous life, and trying to talk herself into staying on the Buddhist path. In Norman’s translation, Nanduttarā mentions nothing about a sex life, juxtaposes her past polytheistic ritual behaviours against her current path, and highlights the peace of mind from snuffing out all desire that is a hallmark of her enlightened state. Bodhipaksa asks of Weingast’s reimagining: “Is this a “free translation”? No. A translation doesn’t have to represent the original word for word, but it should at least communicate the meaning of the original” (link here: https://fakebuddhaquotes.com/the-first-free-women-as-literary-fraud/). Weingast’s transformation of the poem has changed the meaning of it altogether. The poem has been decontextualized and detraditionalized, rendering the important juxtaposition of religious behaviours moot. Further, there is no inference of Buddhist principles in Weingast’s version which desacralizes Nanduttarā’s poem. All of this amounts to demythologization on a meta narrative scale.

An Tran, whose short story anthology Meditations on the Mother Tongue was reviewed in 2017 on the Buddhist Fiction Blog wrote a great piece chronicling the critiques and defenses of Weingast’s poems. 3 He summarized the poetic scandal thusly: “Weingast’s poems bear little to no resemblance to the poems of the Elder Nuns. They often strip away concepts like rebirth, karma, and spiritual attainments, replacing these key Buddhist doctrines with distortions derived from Buddhist modernism, the post-colonial revisionist movement originating in the 19th century, which sought to re-imagine Buddhism in the guise of rationalist philosophy and romantic humanism (a more appealing approach in the West).” Tran does an excellent job of tracing this literary scandal and perfectly critiques the text. Please do read his online article at Lit Hub to get a better sense of how disingenuous is this text and its marketing.

Consequentially, Weingast spent time in interviews and on podcasts explaining his method and obfuscating the distinction between his concept of reimagining the poems from the publisher’s categorization of the work as a translation. And then, after many communications of concern from Buddhist practitioners and scholars alike, on 1 February 2021, Shambhala issued a note about The First Free Women, stating that it was not their intention to mislead readers about the generic disposition of the book. They are reissuing the work with a different sub-title and under different meta-data for categorization. But there was no true admission of wrongdoing.

If you have made it this far into this post, you may be asking why I’m writing about poetry on a fiction blog. I’m writing about poetry because, in this case, perhaps it should be categorized and marketed as fiction, or at the very least, poetry in response to readings of the Therīgāthā, but definitely not Buddhist. Fiction as we know it is Buddhist when it represents and inscribes Buddhist principles into the literature of any language. More often than not, these principles are represented intertextually. That is, there is a narrative thread of Buddhist sacred text or traditional story that drives the fictional plot. And fiction itself, at its best, opens a third space for grappling with life, suffering, intersecting cultures and religious adaptations. There is truth in fiction, but it is not real. Thus we approach reading fiction differently than the way we approach reading a sacred text. We suspend our disbelief for fiction so as to allow the imagery and symbolism to inform our imaginations and glean insight from and through the experiences of characters unlike ourselves. We approach sacred text like the Therīgāthā very differently. We mine sacred text for truth. This is why undertaking translation requires an exhausting goal of veracity to the original, so that, as Grass said, the language and reader are transformed, yet (and I dare say because) the meaning has not changed.

How should a reader approach this text? My first answer is, really, not at all. But if I had to assign this in a Buddhist literature class, I would ask students to read with a view to give examples of demythologization derived from decontextualization, detraditionalization, and desacralization. I would ask them to compare the different forms of patriarchy revealed in good translations of the poems of the elder nuns versus Weingast’s work and expect to hear of contemporary entitlement, sexism, and erasure. And I would ask them if, as An Tran suggests in his Lit Hub article, the Shambhala tome is a sign of the decline of the dharma.


1. Grass G. Archipelago Books. 2012. Available from: http://archipelagobooks.tumblr.com/post/28908475284/translation-is-that-which-transforms-everything-so.

2. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff) (2015) Poems of the Elders, p. 3. Available from: https://www.scribd.com/document/375978299/Poems-of-the-Elders-An-Anthology-from-the-Therag%C4%81th%C4%81-and-Ther%C4%ABg%C4%81th%C4%81 or read the Therīgāthā on Access to Insight here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/index.html

3. “How a Poetry Collection Masquerading as Buddhist Scripture Nearly Duped the Literary World” by An Tran, 3 February 2021 https: //lithub.com/how-a-poetry-collection-masquerading-as-buddhist-scripture-nearly-duped-the-literary-world/?fbclid=IwAR0Cc1TEoi-rRAODtihfFoSPwsMeoUwilc6q8Gi83kimuUK5MDTd-yiU95U

Shifting Perspectives

Happy January. To start the new year I will finish a task from the old year and give you my thoughts about The Search for Jewel Island by R.N. Jackson (2020). The review by David Banks that I cited in my previous post, Finally, Fully Fall, does a wonderful job of outlining the story about Esta, a teenage girl trying to work through some atypical troubles in her 1986 British village.


Usually my aim with reviews on this blog is to point out the Buddhist narrative threads in a piece of fiction, because intertextuality is a the biggest indicator for labeling a work of fiction Buddhist. In Jackson’s novel, the plot is driven by the Buddhist notion of two truths: the conventional truth that we know and live daily (Skt. saṁvṛti), and the ultimate truth that can be realized through the Buddhadharma (Skt. paramārtha). In the story there are two planes of existence that Esta and friends experience: one is the reality they are used to, and the other is akin to the Buddhist Wheel of Life, complete with Mt. Meru, Mara and other demons. Much of the action of the novel takes place in this alternative plane of existence, and Esta questions her own sanity because of it. Eventually she comes to accept that there can be alternate planes of existence, and that these planes can influence one another. So without really learning much about Vajrayana Buddhism, Esta experiences the Buddhist worldview in a wholly embodied way. Jackson also uses the ritual objects of bell (representing wisdom) and dorje (a vajra, representing method) and Buddhist lamas and novices to move his story forward and propel Esta further into the world of Vajrayana Buddhism. Also, a Buddhist lama character cites a sūtra . . . so yes, this novel is definitely intertextual and contains elements of Buddhist worldviews and sacred texts.

I will be honest. I grappled with this review. I was challenged to suspend my disbelief for parts of the novel, probably because I did not resonate with the main character, Esta. She didn’t ask the questions I would have asked, and she didn’t seek the resources I would have gone to for information (when I was around her age in the year 1986). So I had to take a step back from my initial dislike and really try to put myself in the shoes of the character as she was written, try to see things from her perspective. Esta is not a thinker, she is a doer. That is, the character does not live her life in her mind, but through her actions. Esta’s character was drawn to the dorje in the story – she resonated with method, action, embodiment. I am the opposite of Esta – a thinker who has to make great effort to get outside of her head. I decided to stop reading Esta’s story through my own entrenched perspective when I recalled something that David Loy wrote about story: “A story is a point of view. There is no perspectiveless perspective. There is no way to escape perspectives except by multiplying them” David Loy, The World is Made of Stories (2010) p. 11. I worked at shifting my perspective to make room for Esta’s.

Approaching Buddhist fiction the way that I do is sometimes a detractor from the enjoyment of a reading experience. I am always looking for intertextuality. And I’m always weary of Orientalism. This is too easily done in fiction, since Orientalism depends on our tendency to fill the gaps of our knowledge of other peoples with our imaginations. Orientalism as a concept describes how we imagine people from Asia and the “Orient” as inferior, and we do this in various ways. In the case of Vajrayana Buddhisms specifically, usually represented to the West in the form of Tibetan Buddhism, there is a tendency to exoticize and romanticize the idea of Tibetan Buddhism as the means to build a utopia, a Shangri-La. (See Donald S. Lopez, Jr, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, 2012). So of course my Orientalism radar was on as I read this novel. And when I got to chapter 18, which provided Esta and another character, Simon, with a guided tour of the Wheel of Life, I was looking for exoticization. I was looking for the romanticism of a utopia based on the legend of Shangri-la. But because of Jackson’s careful characterization of Esta, and the context of the story world (chronotope) he created, I learned from Esta the value of being able to shift perspectives. In my estimation, what Jackson managed in this chapter is a remythologization of Vajrayana Buddhist cosmology into his story setting, with the potential for this story to impact the social imaginary of his reading audience, to offer a view of the realm of human existence from a different perspective.

There are more stories planned for Esta, and a free prequel available here: free book offer. If you enjoy young adult literature, The Search for Jewel Island is worth the time it takes to read it. I would be interested to hear about reader reception from the teen demographic.

Finally, Fully Fall – Reading “The Search for Jewel Island” by R.N. Jackson

It was a cruel summer. I had every intention of writing blog posts about summer reading that could uplift in these times of anarchy and chaos. And then I learned of the passing of C.W. “Sandy” Huntington, Jr. on 19 July 2020 through a favourite Buddhist news website – Buddhistdoor: https://www.buddhistdoor.net/news/buddhist-scholar-cw-sandy-huntington-dies-aged-71 Sandy was a Buddhist Studies scholar and novelist, and I met him through this blog. He wrote Maya: A Novel in 2015 (Wisdom Publications) which I reviewed on the Buddhist Fiction Blog here: https://buddhistfictionblog.wordpress.com/tag/maya/ . Even though my acquaintance with Sandy was short, he was so collegial, warm hearted and intellectually generous, I felt heard, and he left me with a lasting impression of caring and hope. My heart goes out to his family, friends, colleagues, and students.

July seems so long ago now and I am very glad that the cool air of fall is blowing away some of my summer brain fog. In an effort to live in the present, I will not look back at my summer intentions. Instead, I will announce a new work of Buddhist Fiction that I am reading for fall. It is The Search for Jewel Island by R.N. Jackson. It’s just been published in August and you can find it on Amazon (link under cover photo).

R.N. Jackson is an adventurer, writer, and teacher. He manages the Religion and Philosophy department at one of the UK’s leading independent schools in Cheshire. He is offering a free digital novella, a prequel to The Search for Jewel Island, on his website. It is titled The Eyes of Mara: https://www.rnjackson.com/freebook

I hope to have a review of the novel posted before Canadian Remembrance Day (11 November). In the mean time, I’m sure the early reviews highlighted below will entice you to join me in reading this first novel in what promises to be a long saga of Buddhist fiction novels.

Early reviews from the Amazon.co.uk site:

“A really wonderful engaging book, full of rich Tibetan Buddhist mythology, and impossible to put down, I look forward to reading the sequel!” – Thomas Straughan, Manchester Buddhist Society

“For a debut novel RN Jackson’s The Search for Jewel Island is an assured and convincing read, effortlessly transporting us back to a time, not so long ago, in 1986, when facts about the natural world could only be sourced from experts or from books made of paper and ink – and tweeting was for the birds. This book, the first of an intended series, is certainly not for the birds. It is for readers who have an inkling there is more to the world than might at first be apparent.

Esta Brown, the sullen schoolgirl tearaway at the heart of the story, has read in her science textbook that the tweeting of birds may seem beautiful to us but can be threatening and fearful for the birds themselves: ‘things that seem one way… can really be the opposite.’ It is this idea that slowly unfolds in her mind, like the petals of a delicate and alluring flower, through a series of unforeseeable, uncanny and frightening events, each ushering in the next threat or reason to be fearful.

These events are set in motion by the unexplained disappearance of her father and the raw emotions this event provokes. Her mother and Gran are too bound by grief to be of any real help. One thing leads to another and like falling dominos ‘an unbroken clattering sequence of cause and effect’ unexpectedly transforms Esta from wayward loser into a stubborn seeker for truth and unwitting eco-warrior. The world she knows, bounded by her irritating school, her Gran’s care-home and the road development that threatens it, begins inexplicably to intermingle with a land of demons and gurus, lofty mountains and misty valleys. Rusty items of junk – a hinge, a bolt, a letter-opener – become objects of unexpected power.

The Search for Jewel Island is both a novel of ideas and a fantasy that is firmly, insistently, grounded in the world of ordinary experience: the failures (and saving graces) of adults, the helpfulness (and betrayals) of friends, the jealousy, pride and greed that make life more complicated than it might otherwise be. Simon – he of the permanent tan and the piercing blue eyes – is the boy girls fall for and the other boys wish they were. Yet somehow Esta and Simon team up to make bizarre discoveries in an old house that is scheduled for demolition. It is the place her father was drawn to before his disappearance. Esta’s new friends, Graham and Lily, initially doubt her explanation for Simon’s sudden disappearance, but they soon discover that things can be humdrum and mysterious, common-place and life-threatening, conventional and peculiar – sometimes simultaneously.

What is more bizarre, as Esta discovers, is that modes of being and beliefs about the world ‘can be true in different ways at the same time’. The one mode is commonplace. The other is ineffable – or in other words, for most of us and for most of the time, beyond any possibility of description. Courageously, Jackson attempts not only to describe this interpenetration, but to draw us into its unsettling oddness.

In making this inter-folded world the location of his story, which shifts precariously beneath our everyday understanding, Jackson, though he may not know it, is following in the footsteps of a once popular but now largely forgotten novelist, who was one of a triumvirate of fantasy writers active in the 1930s to the 1950s. Two of them remain well known: CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. The third was Charles Williams, whose novels TS Eliot described as ‘supernatural thrillers’ and of which Lewis said ‘he is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, let us suppose that this everyday world were at some one point invaded by the marvellous’.

Lewis, Tolkien and Williams believed there was more to the world than might at first be apparent. The Oxford University literary discussion group they were part of was called, tellingly, the ‘Inklings’.

Jackson’s novel is not easy to categorise. It is not Sword and Sorcery, nor Super-hero adventure, nor High-School Horror – though it has elements of each. If The Search for Jewel Island indeed becomes part of a forthcoming novel sequence, Jackson may be creating an entirely new genre – or resurrecting one we have not seen for some time. Not quite Sense and Sensibility. More like Weirdness and Wisdom.

Halfway through the novel we discover what Jewel Island is. At least, we think we do. It takes the next half of the story to unravel, with mounting tension and headlong pace, the deeper secret that Jewel Island holds: a weapon that can defeat the forces of chaos and darkness and help Esta rediscover her father.

This is nail-biting, exhilarating, supernatural writing at its best. It’s far from being a novel in verse yet it succeeds in making a case for the place of poetry in our lives. It helps us understand that what is precious is what is meaningful.

I did not intend to read the last third of the book in one sitting. I had planned what I thought were more pressing tasks. Yet the intended tasks had to wait. I was too gripped to tear myself away.

Maybe it was for fear of Gran’s warning to Esta that I kept on reading. To find the meaning of the island. ‘You have to grab it. Make use of it. Do something with it. Or, one day, the winds come, your ship blows away and you never find it again.’ ” – David Banks