Radiance is a daring, exciting novel that richly rewards re-reading. With strong characters and subtle symbolism, Shaena Lambert's book is a living treatise on the art and power of story telling: stories true and stories false. Examples of both abound. Dr. Carney's tale of Keiko's face is a false story, and Daisy, like Keiko, often tells herself false stories, is trapped by false stories; and yet, in the end, stories--grandfather's stories, Walter's stories, Keiko's stories, Daisy's stories--help us to survive, help us understand each other, however dimly, and give us hope for the future.
Keiko's scar is very much in the tradition of Hawthorne's " The Birthmark," and her surgery had me thinking of American foreign policy and the current situation in Iraq, among other things. The more the Bush administration tries to carve its problems away, the more the problems keep bubbling back up. While I may be reading more into the scar than Lambert intended, I think her control of the story is strong enough to allow for such thoughts. I said Radiance was daring because I think symbolism can easily become mechanical and prescriptive, as it sometimes did in Hawthorne. Lambert's treatment avoids that, and achieves a fine fusion between Mansfield and Conrad.
Overall, the book works wonderfully well. There is no let down or falseness in it, and it is marvellously open ended, "able to break into opposites." Among other things, Lambert constantly encourages the reader to "look at it one way, then surprise it, turning swiftly, to see a new visage on its changeable face." Looked at one way, Radiance and Keiko's story can be read as bleak. Nihilistic almost. The story hints at the futility of words and a possible hollowness in the protean shiftiness of story. If the face of the bakemono, the spirit fox, is truly wiped featureless, anything can be imposed on it; and you have to face the horror of moral relativity. Even if there is good and evil, words and stories and an awareness of history do not prevent Iraq following on Vietnam following on Hiroshima.
Looked at another way, Radiance is a story of redemption. While the last paragraph is yet another story in a long succession of stories, a story as seemingly false and shifty as many that preceded it, it is a story that transcends its telling. This transcendence is not just a function of its intense lyricism. If it were merely that, we could simply dismiss it as yet another example of Daisy's hysteria, of her neurotic self-deceptions, an example of Daisy yet again projecting her own needs and desires onto Keiko. What could be more misguided and ironic, after all, than Daisy's vision of herself as a Christ figure, a Jesus of the Sacred Heart, carrying Keiko in the furnace of her heart! What redeems this last story is our realization that Daisy saved herself through it. The story predates the ending and it survives to serve as ending only because it helped Daisy to survive. If stories can mislead and betray, they can also save and transform.
One final thought. Radiance lingers in the mind and effects unforeseen changes. When I re-read "The Birthmark" on-line, several weeks after reading Radiance, I found far more than the cautionary Frankenstein story I remembered. Right now, Radiance also has me re-reading and reinterpreting The Reader, Bernhard Schlink's exploration of Holocaust guilt and the ways in which the scars of the past can torment and distort the face of the present.
Editor of Fathers: A Literary Anthology