“The Illumination” by Kevin Brockmeier

Title: The Illumination
Author: Kevin Brockmeier
ISBN: 9780375425318
Pages: 272
Release date: February 1, 2011
Publisher: Pantheon
Genre: Fiction
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 out of 5*

Carol Ann Page is struggling after a painful divorce, and things only get worse when she accidentally slices off her thumb. When she is hospitalized, she is privy to a phenomenon no one can explain: Everyone’s pain is illuminated. From sore spines to aching joints, from sliced thumbs to ruptured spleens, pain becomes a very visible–and strangely beautiful–thing.

While in the hospital, she meets Patricia, who gives Carol Ann a journal filled with love notes from her husband before she dies. Carol Ann is fascinated by the powerful love she experiences in the pages of the journal, and begins to wonder if she could be loved like that.

Patricia’s husband, Jason Williford, is shattered after the death of his beautiful and beloved wife. His body begins to heal, but he will not allow his mind to move on. He is enthralled by pain, and joins the movement of cutters who make strange and gruesome art with their bodies after Illumination. He also becomes obsessed with recovering the journal that disappeared from the hospital after his wife’s death, but even after he reclaims it he realizes that he will never have his wife back.

Chuck Carter, an autistic boy who lives down the street from Jason, is bullied constantly by his father and other boys at school. They don’t understand that Chuck can feel the pain (and beauty) in everyday objects. When Chuck spies the journal Jason cherishes, he can see the pain beaming out of it like others can see pain in people, and it speaks to him–tells him he should rescue it. He then gives the journal to a nice man who knocks on the door one day.

Ryan Schifrin, a door-to-door evangelist, is taken aback when Chuck hands him the journal and disappears. But not much in his life has made sense, anyway; his passionate, virtuous sister died in her prime, and now he carries on her life’s work–all the while questioning his own faith in God. While he is surprised to find that “evangelism was a job like so many others, where it did not matter what you believed, only what you did,” he finds himself confronted by his disbelief in God more often than he might have in other professions. “He believed there was more light, more pain, in the world than ever before,” and the pain does not slacken simply because it becomes visible. If God has always had his eyes open to this pain, he wonders, what kind of God is he?

Ryan leaves the book in a hotel drawer like a kind of Gideon’s Bible, and it is discovered one day by Nina Poggione, a successful novelist who is plagued by chronic sores in her mouth. Every day is agony, and the pain swallows up the best parts of her life: talking about her book, eating, talking to her son, smiling, enjoying a physical relationship with a man. Nina treasures the journal, filled as it is with sentiments so far from her own life, but one day her son trades the book to a homeless bookseller.

Morse Putnam Strawbridge doesn’t say much, but he hears much and more. Though he usually only communicates the prices of his books in a rote, stiff voice, he can hear the thoughts of those who pass him by. He knows their names and their most secret fears, but he can barely articulate the words that might give him a better life–until he meets a young, streetwise man who takes an interest in Morris.

Brockmeier’s characters are painfully insightful and wonderfully human. He is a skilled storyteller, and he makes each character incredibly endearing in very different ways. Despite coming from all walks of life, they have in common one thing: loneliness. All of them feel stranded, alone, abandoned, confused.

Carol Ann describes the synchronizing effect the Illumination has on her life–finally, the pain she feels inside is evidenced in the world around her:

There was a light in her hand, and a light in her head, and doubtless a light in her memories, too. She had known days of happiness and beauty, rare moments of motionless wonder, but trying to relive them after they had vanished was like looking out the window at night from a partially lit room: no matter how interesting the view, there was always her own reflection, hovering over the landscape like a ghost.

Brockmeier’s description of Chuck’s world is one of the best I’ve ever heard an autistic child’s universe:

Chuck Carter lived in dozens of different places every day. Sometimes he lived in a house with dark green carpets. Sometimes he lived in a school that smelled like milk. He lived in a run-down car with his parents sometimes. . . One time, Chuck rode in an elevator with glass walls. This was the single best place he had ever lived.

Chuck truly lives in the moment, and he is more connected with this world and the objects it contains than most children. Again, Brockmeier’s characterization is impeccable; I was able to lose myself in Chuck, seeing the world from an entirely different perspective. His world seems at once simpler and more profound than those of his peers and even his parents.

Ryan is, perhaps, my favorite character. His struggle to reconcile his outward good deeds and his inward doubts make him seem very human and believable:

What frightened Ryan–horrified him–was not the possibility that God did not love us, but that He did love us and His love was merely decorative. Aesthetic rather than unconditional. That He loved us because we suffered, and our suffering was pleasing to His eyes.

His doubts make him authentic, and his very hypocrisy makes him realistic.

I enjoyed every page of this book. It is one of the most well-written, imaginative, and compelling books I’ve read this year. The journal that passes from person to person makes them greater than they were. In a world where pain is visible, love must also be palpable, and Brockmeier expertly balances the two.

*I originally rated this book 4.5 out of 5 stars, but upon further reflection, I upgraded my rating.

Quote of Note:

“The reality cuts across our minds like a wound whose edges crave to heal, but cannot. Thus, one of the great sins, perhaps the great sin, is to say: It will heal; there is no wound; there is something more important than this wound. There is nothing more important than this wound.”
– Whittaker Chambers

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy The Illumination for yourself from an independent bookstore. Each sale from this link helps support Melody & Words.

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