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February 14, 2007

Radiance by Shaena Lambert

Radiance would be the story of Keiko, a “Hiroshima Maiden” who comes to America in 1952 for plastic surgery on her facial scars. It is quickly apparent, however, that this story belongs instead to those she meets during her sojourn– people who see her as an opportunity to fulfil their own personal longings. And all of them want to hear her story:

~’Tell me about Hiroshima.’ But she is. She is. It is a map she carries in her body, where north holds the hills and, beneath them, the wide suburban avenues, the streetcar rails dusted with snow. South is full of winding cobbled streets, smelling of fish. East beyond the castle is a flat plain that reminds her of her father. Here soliders practice their drills and formations, carrying black bayonets.~

Hiroshima is a place of many stories. For me, for many years, Hiroshima was a book by John Hersey and a photo of a mushroom cloud. While we lived in Japan, we visited the city twice and it became one of my favourite cities in that country, with beautiful canals, a vibrant atmosphere, and nearby Miyajima, which might just be my favourite place in the world. Lambert plays with the idea of a storied Hiroshima in a marvelous way. How a city’s name has come to stand for such atrocity, and yet behind it are the stories of the people who live there. And similarly are stories woven throughout the novel– in particular the story of Daisy Lawrence, Keiko’s American “host mother” who is dealing with her own personal trauma when Keiko comes to stay. Keiko herself remains a cipher right to the novel’s ambiguous end.

Daisy comments that once Keiko comes, everything seems to be “carrying a double shadow, so that you could never be sure if what you saw was strange or natural.” It is the same experience for the reader, who can never be sure whether incidents are interpreted through characters’ neuroses, or can be seen for what they are. This ambiguity is particularly effective as the narrative takes place during the era of McCarthyist paranoia, and Daisy’s own husband is called to testify about his affiliations. But at the same time, so many unanswered questions leave a reader a bit unsatisfied too. More of a focus could have aided this: with so many double shadows, and you long for something solid to hold.

The multitude of perspectives is one problem in this text. Swinging between characters results in such bizarre situations as Daisy seemingly noting her husband sitting in the car “watching her stout, muscled buttocks” as he dropped her off at the train station. Similar awkwardness exists in some of the prose: a sentence like “The pilot… stepped jauntily down the steps” is absolutely crying out for a better verb, or an editor. I was uneasy about some of the metaphors connected Daisy and Keiko: that the former takes off her girdle and is imprinted with flowers, as victims of the atomic bombs are burned by the patterns on their kimonos, and while the connection is jarring, I did not find it particularly informing.

But as the above passage about Hiroshima indicates, Lambert is capable of very strong writing. And this story gathers momentum as it goes, culminating in twists and turns that took me completely by surprise. Perhaps Radiance is a book of too many stories, but the story at its core, which is Daisy Lawrence’s, is well-played out until the very end. And Keiko’s story too, even in her reticence. She proves a most intriguing trickster figure, never explained away and this contibutes to the novel’s magic aura. Using a remarkable blend of Japanese and American lore, Shaena Lambert’s Radiance tells the stories which underwrite the history we think we know.

3 thoughts on “Radiance by Shaena Lambert”

  1. Steven W. Beattie says:

    “The pilot … stepped jauntily down the steps”: What bothers me more than the verb (although the repetition of “step” is awkward) is the adverb. I hate adverbs as a rule, but you have to be a really strong writer to use the word “jaunty” and expect to get away with it.

    Thanks for this review. I’ve been trying to decide whether I should read this. I think I’ll wait for the trade pb.

  2. Kerry says:

    I think the pilot should have bounded, but then I am overly fond of bounding. I *would* encourage you to read this book. And the cover art is so beautiful.

  3. Steven W. Beattie says:

    The cover art is gorgeous. Maybe I’ll give it a go. Have to get through House of Meetings and The Road first. If I’m not on anti-depression medication by the time that’s done … we’ll see.

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