Marina Budhos
New York: G.F. Putnamís Sons, 1999
ISBN # 0-399-14475-0
254 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2006

Warren Singh, an East Indian from British Guiana, professor in New York, spends his summers with his family in rural England. He is consumed with the problem of light Ė what to make of it, how to understand it and most importantly how to describe it. He is torn between the competing theories of light as particle and light as wave.

His precocious daughter Megan, the narrator of this tale, is taken into Warrenís world as his co-inquirer and learns many things no pre-teen (at the outset) and mid-teen (at the end) would typically have any idea of.

But madness seems to run in the Singh family, most recently with Warrenís brother Joseph who was also fascinated by the problem of light. Joseph went complete mad with what they call the jumbee curse inside the family. Slowly, this disease overtakes Warren and there are even subtle suggestions along the way that Megan may be in for the same.

I was disappointed with the treatment of the physics of light problems. Author Marina Budhos tries to make it sound all so complex and deep, yet what she gives us in the novel is the slimmest surface glance at the problem, and talk about studying and unpacking the problem without ever having any serious discussion of the problems and issues themselves. I came away from the book thinking Budhos could have learned all she needed about the problem to write this book with just an one hourís read on the internet.

There was a second feature of the book that troubled me. In significant measure there is a tension revealed in the characters between several conflicts: being Caribbean Eastern Indian Guyanese and being U.S./British westerners; between the old culture of India and that of the west; between rational/scientific approaches to the world and superstitious/Hindu religious approaches. Those clashes and tensions were fairly well written and I think I learned from them. However, I had the feeling that Budhos was somehow trying to graft those dichotomies onto the dichotomy of light as particle and light as wave. If so, then either it was badly done, or just completely over my heard.

I enjoyed Megan as narrator. We watched her grow, learn, get drafted into her fatherís world, and then try to make sense of the break up of her parentís marriage and the madness of her own father. Her mother, an American woman represents all that Warren initially was not during his youth in (then) British Guiana and the Caribbean East Indian culture. Meganís mother doesnít play a major role in the novel, but toward the end she does become a much more sympathetic figure.

The book was not what I expected. Thatís not the authorís fault. The author may, of course, write what she wants. But, the title, The Professor of Light, the initial discussion of the problem of light, wetted my appetite for a book with some profound insight into this difficult problem of modern physics and philosophy. However, it was clear fairly early on that the problem of light would be treated lightly. I could have put the book aside. But, I had become interested in the other clashes, the cultural ones, and the inner-family struggles, so I stuck with it. Not a bad book, but, on the other hand not a terrible satisfying read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett