Light Years From Home: 02/27/22
Light Years From Home by Mike Chen opens in space. Jakob is fleeing for his life and his best escape is to return to Earth. At home, though, we get chapters from his sisters: Evie, Jakob's UFO obsessed twin, and Kass, their older, jaded, responsible sister who has been singlehandedly caring for their mother who has lost her memories to dementia sometime back.
From the very get-go, the initial chapter and those following from Jakob's POV are called into question. Has he really been fighting an intergalactic war all these years? Of is he also suffering from mental illness like his mother?
As I tend to take a story at face value, meaning I started the book fully invested in Jakob's story, I was immediately reminded of similar stories. The first to come to mind is the film Flight of the Navigator (1986), although Jakob appears to have aged at a similar rate to his family (and I'll admit this detail bothered me a bit). Near light speed "time travel" due to relativity isn't a theme in this book but there's still the general missing family member returns to find his family irrevocably changed.
For the middle, the novel dances around themes from Shutter Island (2003) and we're once again asked to see if Jakob could be interpreting mundane aspects of Earth life into something more extraordinary for a space war themed delusion. When forced to, he can tell fairly convincing lies that place him on Earth for the entirety of his absence from home. There's also an E.T. (1982) vibe running through most of the book. The FBI is present and they are interested in Jakob. Their interest could prevent him from carrying out his mission, whether it's all in his head or actually out in space somewhere.
The thematic thread that holds these other homages together, though, is one that I thought was in my head. Although Jakob is canonically Chinese-Filipino/American he gave me a Luke from the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. Anyone who has read my blog in the last three years, knows I've been obsessed with the book and adaptation. So, I fully expected the twin dynamics and mental illness themes of Light Years from Home to be feeding into my own personal head-canon. Nope, it's actual canon as mentioned in the author's afterword.
Like the Hill House source material (in both forms), Chen's novel is also on the Road Narrative Spectrum.
I've enjoyed all of Mike Chen's novels but Light Years from Home is to date, my favorite. As Jakob is sojourning on Earth with an ultimate goal of returning to his life in space, his journey doesn't count. But, there's a short trip during the climax that he takes with his family that does. A road trip to the lake where everything began fifteen years earlier is instrumental to Jakob succeeding.
As Jakob travels with his mother and sisters, collectively they are a family of travelers (33). Their destination is somewhere rural (the lake) (33). Their route their is a series of country roads, or Blue Highways (33). Thus the last act of the novel can be summarized as family traveling to a rural place via the Blue Highway (333333).