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Rosa Shand

Rosa Shand teaches English at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The Gravity of Sunlight is her first novel.


“You find yourself seduced and longing for me.”

– Chicago Tribune

"The Gravity of Sunlight is lapidary. . . . Shand is a sort of Didion."

– Newsday

"Remarkable . . . written with acute, sensual detail."

– The New York Times Book Review

"A writer of such extraordinary passion and intelligence, you find yourself seduced and longing for more."

– Chicago Tribune

“The Gravity of Sunlight is a brilliant, beautiful, and aptly named book: in luminous prose, with grace and wit and intelligence, it describes a complicated moral journey. This is a remarkably assured and accomplished first novel – a truly engaging, interesting, smart book about the head and the heart and the body and the large world.”

– Peter Cameron


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The Gravity of Sunlight

There is a book I turn to sometimes when I want to live in desire.


It’s called The Gravity of Sunlight. I often find myself rereading it almost by accident. I flip to the passage I want, and fifty pages later, I can’t put the book down until I finish it again.

I bought my copy in Prague, where I taught English for a year after college, seven years ago now. I was buying a book or two a week then, reading the first few pages and making my decisions based on how deeply the sentences took root. I knew nothing about publishers or publishing. I hadn’t published, but I was starting a novel that I am still working on now, set in Prague and following a year in the life of an American expatriate.

The Gravity of Sunlight is by an author I still know almost nothing about (though I wish I knew more), Rosa Shand. It is set in Uganda just before, and then as, Idi Imin takes power. You can feel the politics in the atmosphere like the electrical charge before a lightning storm. A storm about to the hit the small community of expats that the novel centers around.

Prague is nothing like Uganda, and the expats I knew and the characters I was writing about are hardly similar to the characters in Shand’s book, but the experience of being somewhere very different from the place you came from — an experience most of us share in one way or another — is acutely felt: both the love and fear of that place, both the possibilities and constrictions that such a difference presents.

In The Gravity of Sunlight, Agnes is married to a didactic missionary who works at the local university. He’s an “intellectual” and a bore, who believes she can “will” herself to love him. They have a family (three children), and mostly shared ideals, and at one point they needed each other to escape. But now, of course, the situation has changed. Now Agnes is full of longing for someone else, something else, and is surrounded by potential objects of affection. The novel opens with her attraction to a European man; she has dreams about an African who was once her employee and now has followed her to her new home; there is a woman she may be in love with.

About the ex-employee: “Odinga made an art of the minimum gesture that would catch her attention. . . . At the moment he would know, to the centimeter, where she was. He need only come around to where the bedroom window faced. He would never call or knock. He preferred to let her catch his shadow — it was the fine art of the continent. . . . It would actually be a great release — she accepted now — when Odinga was safely away at Megan’s house. She’d be free of her absurd self-consciousness.”

I can’t remember what I felt reading the book for the first time, but as revisions of my novel spiraled out of control, I thought of The Gravity of Sunlight often. I am telling you: at points, you can hardly breathe for all the desire Agnes feels; it’s like you’re at the bottom of the ocean and you’re holding your breath because if you let it out, the world you are immersed in will crush you. I wanted my characters, and my readers, to feel that way, and I looked carefully at the dreams and reservations Agnes has, where she gives in and what she gives up, the feeling that her longing is more powerful than anything else.

And Africa. “He preferred to let her catch his shadow — it was the fine art of the continent.” The longing for Africa goes beyond characters and story. It seems the book’s longing; when you put down The Gravity of Sunlight, you miss Africa and feel as if you must return there as soon as you can. Because the Uganda of The Gravity of Sunlight is the only place all that desire is possible, and at the end of the novel that Uganda is gone. That, to me, is a book, the only place where something — a feeling, a way of life, a story — is possible.

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  1. JImin Han said on 01/24/12 at 8:07 pm Reply

    I’ll check it out now b/c of what you wrote. Thanks!


  2. Jordan Blum said on 01/25/12 at 9:54 pm Reply

    I can relate to your last statement, Matt. You know a book is good when you hesitate to finish the last pages because it will be over. You disappear into the souls and settings of characters and you don’t want to leave.


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