"If you step outside your head, and really look around, the world is full of beautiful things."
Colleen Weagle is looking out the passenger side window of her co-worker's car when this occurs to her. The two are en route to Niagara Falls, where Colleen hopes to uncover the truth behind her husband's death, where Patti, her co-worker, hopes to do some gambling and have a carefree girls weekend away. The beautiful thing Colleen sees, which she might not have seen had she not been lured out from under the torpor of her grief by a clue in a Metro she's dug out of the recycling bin at her call centre job, is a senior citizen lifting weights on his front lawn.
If one doesn't feel like getting up, "quirky" is probably the aptest adjective in arms reach to describe the writing of Sam Shelstad. Colleen is Mimico-based everywoman who keeps a light lit against the darkness by writing spec scripts for the CBC drama Riders of Exley ("...about an English-style horse-riding school in the fictional Saskatchewan town of Cloud River. Kind of a coming-of-age thing.") She lives with and cares for her mother and often escapes into Reindeer Island, the video game that her deceased husband is still logged into. As Heartstrong the reindeer, Colleen explores the open world game. The object of the game is to solve puzzles with the help of other players without the use of language. But as the game has fallen out of popularity, there are hardly any other players, so Colleen spends most of time wandering the world alone, ill equipped to get to the bottom of anything.
At first blush, Colleen's certainly a bit of an odd duck. She's timid, blithe, and bumbling. Quirky. The sort of person who's pleasant enough to talk to who you leave maybe feeling a little sorry for. But describing either Colleen or Citizens of Light simply quirky is a bit like trying to pick a dime up off the floor with hockey gloves on. Shelstad is a deceptively dexterous, precise writer and is just as caring and careful with his hero.
Like the best funny books, Shelstad's first novel is somewhat dark, somewhat sad, and ultimately revivifying. It's respectful of grief, respectful of confusion and loneliness, and fundamentality jazzed over all the fun stuff that comes with being alive. What comes off as quirk is at once a revelation of all the odd and beautiful things in the world while also being an awkwardly-fitting cloak for rough, ugly ones.
If you consider a senior citizen lifting weights on their front lawn a beautiful thing, Citizens of Light is for you. If not, then you need to step outside your head and really look around. I recommend stepping into Citizens of Light.