Book Review: Cynthia Banham’s A Certain Light is a searing look at family trauma and a horrific accident

It is hard for some of us to even fathom being an airplane crash victim. But for former Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Cynthia Banham it was reality. In A Certain Light Banham pens a family memoir that describes this irrevocable tragedy, and the fateful day that left her a double amputee with burns to over 60% of her body. This book is a searing reminder for us all to cherish the things that really matter in this life.

In 2007, Banham had the world at her feet. She had successfully completed a career change, leaving behind her work as a solicitor to land a dream job as a print journalist. She was covering the foreign affairs round and was tasked with covering then-foreign minister, Alexander Downer’s trip to Indonesia. A last-minute change to the schedule by the Indonesian President would see Banham take a different flight; it was with Garuda, the national airline of Indonesia.

The flight itself was apparently an uneventful one. But when the plane came in to land the pilot ignored fifteen warning signs and wound up over-shooting the runaway. There were 140 people on board and 21 of them died; including five Australians. While Barnham survived, some of her neighbouring passengers did not. Banham would ultimately be left with traumatic survivor’s guilt and shocking physical injuries.

For years Barnham was unable to write about this ordeal. But eventually she did find the strength to tackle this difficult subject matter. This happened after she opened up a box of cards and items from well-wishers. It was around the same time that she discovered another box containing information about the lives of her family members. She discovered that her grandfather was a prisoner during World War II. Whilst, Banham’s mother on the other hand, was left feeling displaced when her family left Italy to settle in the very “white bread” Australia. Banham does a fantastic job of weaving together both her and her family’s stories.

Banham’s tale is an incredible one. The love and dedication that her husband, Michael Harvey, exhibits is so beautiful. Banham would choose in the accident’s aftermath to channel her loss of control and changed sense of self into a vessel of inner strength. She was determined to live her life as fully as possible and to not waste a moment. It took a lot of adjustment. Banham had previously run marathons and now has prosthetic legs and occasionally relies on a wheelchair. But she was in good hands. Her doctor was Fiona Wood, the inventor of spray-on skin.

A Certain Light is ultimately a love letter from Banham to her three year old son. The result is a brutally honest and incredibly intimate look at love, loss, trauma, hope and empathy. The book is truly inspirational and poignant and while Banham may be left feeling completely changed by this freak, random event, this book shows she is extremely strong and certainly not broken by the horror.

Cynthia Banham’s A Certain Light is available now through Allen & Unwin.