The Illumination review

What would a world where pain is as visible as light be like?

Time In
Kevin Brockmeier


Dear friends of M. Night Shyamalan: should the director mention to you that he’s reading Brockmeier (The Brief History of the Dead), change the subject. Show him something shiny or tell him about how you think your attic is haunted. Do whatever it takes to keep his mitts off Brockmeier’s novel, which, in lesser hands, could airbend into a cloying mess.

The premise: pain is visible as light. Cut yourself and a shaft of light accompanies the blood. Bruises show up as sun flares on the skin, and diseases such as emphysema and cancer phosphoresce from people’s organs, visible even through clothing. At the outset, Carol Ann slices the tip of her finger and shares a hospital room with a car-crash victim, whose light extinguishes. Before dying, the woman passes on to Carol Ann her diary, consisting of love notes left to her by her husband, whom she believes to be dead. Brockmeier then passes the MacGuffin around to five more characters, all of whom are illuminated by their pain.

Brockmeier employs some fancy footwork with The Illumination. He neatly braids six strangers’ stories together, allowing them to bleed into each other’s lives just enough to resonate, but not to strain credulity. Somehow, he manages to keep the pain-as-light motif just this side of precious by exploring it creatively (a group of teenagers cut themselves to decorate their bodies with glimmering tattoos) and frighteningly (one woman’s disease is so fierce her skeleton illumines). The structure of the book occasionally leads to clunkiness – when each new character appears, he introduces us again to the phenomenon. But it’s a brief moment of clouds passing in an otherwise sunlit novel.

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