THE ILLUMINATION by Kevin Brockmeier

Book Quote:

“A woman in a blue burka, long pencils of light shining through the net of her veil. A team of cyclists with their knees and feet drawing iridescent circles in the air. A girl with a luminous scrape on her arm, her face caught in an expression of inquisitive fear…the news anchor addressed the camera, saying how from all around the world today we are receiving continuing reports of this strange occurrence: light, pouring from the injuries of the sick and the wounded.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (FEB 3, 2011)

Many believe that in today’s tortured times, humanity is mortally wounded. What if our pain manifested itself as visible light, and what if that pain was the most beautiful thing about us? What if the pain would cease and the light would radiate from us all?

In Kevin Brockmeier’s incandescent novel, his characters struggle to adapt to a new way of experiencing pain and loss and indeed, life itself. The author employs overlapping, fable-like narratives starting with Carol Ann whole life “seemed like one long litany of wounds.” Carol Ann had “known days of happiness and beauty, rate moments of motionless wonder, but trying to relive them was like looking out the window at night from a partially lit room.”

It is into her hands that a very special journal falls – a journal of love notes from a young husband to his now-deceased wife. This is, indeed, a “bible” of love, filled with intensely intimate notes like, “I love the scent of your hair just after you’ve taken a shower. I love the funny noises you make when you dream, the tiny pop of your lips separating. I love the last question you ask me before bedtime.

Not unlike the structure of Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, this book falls into one narrator’s hands after the other: from Carol Ann to the bereaved husband, Jason, a photojournalist who learns the art of self-mutilation from a troubled teenage girl; Chuck Carter, a battered teenage boy who believes he can feel inanimate objects (such as the book’s) pain; evangelist Ryan Shifrin, who “wanted a Heaven of starting over, a Heaven of trying again” and who questions the very essence of suffering; the touring author Nina who is aching physically and emotionally; and lastly, the street-vendor Morse, who understands humanity but does not love it, and “who in this world would choose understanding over love?”

This love journal will illuminate the way to these damaged souls as much as the physical wounds that blaze and glitter with light in this new world phenomenon. Brockmeier illuminates lives of quiet desperation – a severed thumb, chronic mouth ulcers, burns, punctures, wounds, and lacerations, and most of all, the emotional pain that divorces us from the connections we so sorely need.

At times, the cataloguing of pain becomes a little mind-numbing and repetitive. But make no mistake, Brockmeir’s book is radiant and bewitching as he drills deep into the common human condition. Ryan Shifrin thinks, “You would think that taking the pain of very human being and making it so starkly visible – every drunken headache and frayed cuticle, every punctured lung and bowel pocked with cancer – would inspire waves of fellow feeling all over the world, at least ripples of pity…”

In real life – and in Brockmeir’s artistically-created world – that does not happen, of course. But as one of the minor characters discovers, “Yes, his wounds burned out of him like a fire, but his pain would cease and his body would heal, and the light would last forever.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 47 readers
PUBLISHER: Pantheon (February 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Kevin Brockmeier
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More authors to check out:

Karen Russell

John Wray


For Kids:

February 3, 2011 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags:  · Posted in: Allegory/Fable, Contemporary, Reading Guide, Speculative (Beyond Reality)

One Response

  1. dshepherd79 - February 6, 2011


    Thanks for this great review. I read an excerpt of “The Illumination” titled “Ryan Shifrin” in the Winter issue of Tinhouse, and seriously it gave me goosebumps…

    I am adding this book, along with “The Brief History of the Dead” which I haven’t had a chance to read yet, despite all the wonderful things I’ve heard about it, to my TBR…


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