Ms. Haigh is an expertly nuanced storyteller long overdue for major attention. Her work is gripping, real and totally immersive, akin to that of writers as different as Richard Price, Richard Ford and Richard Russo. They are part of the stellar literary lineup of her admirers. With this book, she moves one big step closer to being in their league.
Heat and Light will leave you wanting more, wishing Haigh had gone deeper into some of these stories. Still, even her short, sharp jabs can be splendidly effective cultural criticism, like the jocular segment of cable business news that describes 'investors in a panic' over the tanking of the natural-gas market.
...with the publication of Jennifer Haigh’s Heat & Light, we finally have a novel — and a novelist — whose ambitions match the scale of this subject [fracking] ... Haigh has opted for a panoramic approach, moving her narrative from a corporate shareholders’ meeting in Houston to a farmhouse where a couple argue over the sale of their drilling rights; from a small-town bar where out-of-state gas crews drink to a community meeting where an activist geologist answers questions asked by terrified landowners. It’s a tour de force of multiple point-of-view narration.
By taking on such a politically divisive issue, Ms. Haigh is vulnerable to what you might call Barbara Kingsolver syndrome—dressing up sententious lectures in a gauze of melodrama. But as she demonstrated in 2011’s Faith, a deft and unpredictable novel springing from the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal, she knows how to isolate persuasive local conflicts from national news stories...There’s not a boring page in this fittingly chaotic chronicle of our 21st-century oil rush.
Haigh taps into this economic boom and bust era with the fervor of a native shocked by fracking's toll on the environment and inhabitants she treasures...This is an angry book from Haigh, uncharacteristically harsh in her language and view of human nature. Fueled by the energy released in her native state, it more than earns the symbolism of its title.
For Haigh, Bakerton is becoming something akin to Faulkner's apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County. It's a place she's brought to life so scrupulously that she can delve deep, both into the minds and family histories of her mostly working-class characters, as well as into the land itself and the stories it contains. Heat & Light is her most ambitious — and compelling — novel yet ... As spectacular as Haigh's panoramic social focus is in this novel — whisking us from Dark Elephant's shareholders' meeting in Houston into Bakerton's taverns, the Wal-Mart, the local meth-head hangouts and storefront churches — she's also superb at getting us into the nitty gritty of her character's worldview, as well as their speech.
Written in the best tradition of the social novel — think Balzac, Zola, Dickens — Jennifer Haigh’s new work is an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of hydraulic fracking and its human consequences.
Each cast member, principle and secondary, is distinctive and fully rounded. Cutting from one point of view to another, with each chapter, she manages to generate narrative drive — you want to know what happens next. She’s done impeccable research, writing with authority about natural gas extraction and the operation of a nuclear power plant. Indeed, Haigh does so much so well, it is a puzzle that Heat & Light has so little impact...Therein lies the novel’s lack of punch. Haigh fails to tighten her grip on any part of the story. Although a proficient writer, Haigh is not a stylist. She seldom squeezes the language. Having missed the chance to tighten focus midway through, the story wisps away as it approaches the conclusion, like dry ice turning to vapor.
You could describe Heat and Light as a fracking novel, but that’s only a piece of it. Haigh immerses us in the community, letting its stories overlap like conversations at a town meeting...As you read, you start to sense what the air in this town smells like, and picture the faded decorations in Rich’s father’s bar and the bland, pinched-beige interior of Rich and Shelby’s home. Haigh delicately maintains the tone — and a page-turning level of engagement — while constantly shifting the narrative point of view. (At one point, she seamlessly slips into the voice of the sort of attorney who runs 'Call today!' ads on television.) She doesn’t judge her characters or their actions, but simply shines light on them, creating from a small town and a place in time a rich tapestry of dreams, of greed, of hope.