The Illumination: A Novel
It is an intriguing idea: How would we live if all of our wounds were made visible by an illuminating light that shone from every cut, bruise, malady, or illness? This premise is thoughtfully rendered in The Illumination.
All around the world “we are receiving continuing reports of this strange occurrence: light, pouring from the injuries of the sick and wounded.” Nobody is immune. Everything is out on the table for all to see. What were once private scars and suffering are now public. Some are drawn to pain’s light, while others try to hide from it. The characters in this book live with conflicting feelings of curiosity and despair. They believe their individual suffering sets them apart, but also find pain (at times) to be a unifying experience of shared humanity. One man in the story states, “Compassion. A cultivated interest in suffering.”
Intermix this new worldwide reality of illuminated pain with an intensely intimate and private journal of love notes from a husband to his wife, and you will find a story that keeps your eyes moving to discover into whose lap and life the journal lands next.
It all begins when Carol Ann Page accidentally cuts off the end of her thumb and is recovering from surgery in the hospital. Just before the injuries from a car accident take her life, the woman in the bed next to Carol tells her to take her journal. She says she knows that her husband died in the same accident, and she wants someone to keep the journal of love notes that he left for her every day they were together. Carol reluctantly holds onto the journal, which is soon passed on or falls into the possession of a number of unique individuals who are each experiencing their own losses and realizations in the midst of “The Illumination.”
Each of the characters who possess the journal (young and old) is living with a great sense of isolation and loneliness. The words in the journal are the only words of love, affirmation, and support that most of them have or experience in their daily lives. Thus the journal is a symbol of the hope, acceptance, and affirmation which they lack and, consciously or unconsciously, seek. This is eloquently written when it is said about one of those in possession of the journal, “No matter where he looked, he saw nothing but pain.” Another possessor of the journal’s thoughts are portrayed as, “She didn’t want adulation anymore. She didn’t want love. She only wanted to carve a small path of painlessness and blunted feeling through her life until she came out the other side.”
Mr. Brockmeier has skillfully written about the intimate interior lives of a variety of distinct individuals with depth, understanding, and realism. While learning about each character and the threads that bind them (the most obvious being the journal), the author also explores more universal questions and considerations. Why does suffering exist? Does it have a purpose and if so what is it? Why care about others suffering? Do all beings and inanimate objects suffer? Is it all a play? Is all life connected?
Reading The Illumination is like getting inside the heads of people you know or have seen. At times, readers might think they are looking at a mirror and not a book. This fictional story brings a number of emotions, thoughts, fears, and desires to the surface, while subtly asking questions about what life is about and whether it matters.
If you like a very good story, with a unique premise (that also makes you think), then this book matters.