The Illumination

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

In The Illumination, there is a strange, sudden phenomenon: everyone’s pain gives off light. The book consists of stories about several disparate characters, and what unifies them is the light phenomenon–which is never explained–and a handwritten notebook of love notes. Each character has a distinctive voice, which is impressive since they’re so different, ranging from a child to a missionary to an old homeless man.

There are countless scenes in the novel where characters interact with a stranger and notice various aches and diseases that would be hidden except for the light illuminating their pain. In these scenes, the book really makes you think about all the pain of one kind or another that everyone carries with them, and serves as a reminder to treat people kindly. Our world is not illuminated like Brockmeier’s, and this is a blessing of privacy, because we can hide our pain, unlike Brockmeier’s characters. But in our world, not knowing other peoples’ pain immediately upon seeing them keeps us from forming a quick empathetic connection, or offering help we don’t know is needed.

 In addition to enduring injuries and diseases, several of the main characters deal with grief and depression, leading them to question previous beliefs and conceptions of the world. The book really grapples with issues of faith as the characters struggle to make sense of an unjust, pain-filled world. Here’s just one example of a sentence that hit me pretty hard, a thought I’ve had but have never been able to verbalize so well (and isn’t that the feeling you want a book to give you?):

He did not believe–and who could?–in a God so hawkeyed and brutal, a God who bestowed a cancer here, a deformity there, for you a septic embolism, for you a compound fracture, selecting one person for grief and another for happiness like a painter experimenting with degrees of light and shadow (163).

That sentence in isolation might sound like it comes from a preachy book or a book that’s all about ideas and philosophy, but that’s not really how I’d describe The Illumination, unlike some books. All of the ideas come out of the characters and their experiences. Reading it doesn’t feel like reading philosophy, it feels like immersing oneself in another person’s life.

In addition to the shifting points of view, there are some unique micro-level style choices, like in the last section where the protagonist is able to kind of see inside other people’s minds for an instant, and tells their thoughts as if they were his own, the various strangers’ stories flowing into and out of his own. A writer character alternates between her story and a fairy tale that she wrote. The voice in the child character’s section was perfect–I have a soft spot for child characters, I think. It’s interesting to see how the disparate stories are actually connected, and how the notebook gets passed down. Each of the characters seem to understand how precious and strange it is, and make their own connection with it.

If there is a flaw in this book, it’s that everyone seems pitiable and sad in some way, and none of them really solve their problems. Indeed, some of them make their own lives considerably worse on purpose. There were moments that felt really bleak, but the  glimpses of beauty in the prose, the images and the vision of lost love from the book of love notes, made up for them.

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