Wednesday, 16 March 2011

24/111 – The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

This book is a proof copy that I snagged when I was doing work experience at Vintage. I had been doing some tasks for them on something totally unrelated to this book when I came across an American review, and realised that Jonathan Cape would be publishing over here. So I got a copy!

I was mainly interested in it because of the central idea, which is; what if one day you could see the pain of everyone around you? In the world of The Illumination, pain inexplicably begins to manifest itself as light. Whether it’s a paper cut, a bruise, cancer, arthritis – everything shines through. In all other respects, their world is the same as ours, only the characters now have to navigate the world with all their ailments on show.

The book is split into six main parts, each following a particular character: a divorcee, a bereaved husband, a young boy, a travelling missionary, a writer, and a homeless bookseller. These seemingly random people are tied together by a handwritten journal of once-a-day love notes.

We first meet Carol-Ann in her kitchen, where she slices the top off her thumb and heads into hospital. During her stay, she meets the dying Patricia, who gives her the journal of notes that Patricia has transcribed from her husband, Jason. Patricia’s distressed widower eventually gets the journal back, and it is at this point which we leave Carol Ann and move on to his portion of the tale. The book progresses in a similar fashion, with the journal being passed from one person to another.

I was excited by the idea of visible pain, but I was a little wary of the journal idea, and admittedly when explaining it to people it sounds really cheesy. But Brockmeier uses the journal sparingly and deftly, and in the end I found that the effect it had on people’s lives was very moving. I’m a journal-ler myself (albeit not of love notes), and there was something very appealing about this handwritten object passing through different sets of hands and changing their lives in a small way. For Jason, it gives him a link back to his dead wife. For its next owner, Chuck, it leads him to stand up for himself against a bully. Nina, an author, uses the idea of the notes left behind to write a short story. And so on.

The book is wonderfully written, too, and it is the skill of the author’s writing that stops The Illumination from seeming overly sentimental. The stories are all sad, and each character has their own loneliness and their own pain to deal with, but he manages to convey this with grace and tenderness. Another thing I liked which I didn't notice on reading it - one reviewer pointed out that the chapter with the misfit boy, Chuck, has exactly ten words in each sentence, a reflection of the way in which he organises his world.

I have a couple of points of complaint, one good natured, and one slightly critical. The former is that I was a little frustrated that once the story moves on from the character in focus, it doesn’t return! You never find out what happens to Carol Ann or Chuck, who were my favourites, and some of the stories even span several decades. I think the point here is that it doesn’t matter what happens to those characters after we leave them – their lives have been touched in some way before the journal moves on.

My only disappointment is in the second section of the book. In the wake of the Illumination phenomenon, Jason sets out to take photos of people and their everyday pain, and encounters a group of teenagers who are self-harming. He takes a photo of a girl named Melissa, and when it appears in a newspaper, the picture ends up getting her kicked out of her parents’ home. I found that her character stretched credibility. I don’t know if Brockmeier has successfully written teenage girls before, but this particular one was dreadful. It wasn’t the writing I had a problem with, but her actions - she was portrayed as that kind of damaged-but-sassy girl that I would loved to have been as a teenager, but who never really existed other than on television.

On the whole, that’s really just a small complaint. The Illumination is dazzling and compelling, and beautifully written. The highly imaginative premise alone makes this a fantastic and often touching read.

Next time: A Dark Matter by Peter Straub

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