The Illumination is a work of sheer imagination laid over the gritty reality of modern life. Using the device of a journal of love notes that passes through the hands of six different characters, Kevin Brockmeier examines questions about pain: how does pain affect us, how do we deal with it, what part does it play in the human condition? His six characters attempt various shifts: numbing it, rising above it, seeking out new pain and causing pain to others.
The jacket summary asks, "What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us?" but I do not believe that The Illumination affirms that question. While the phenomenon of each individual's pain showing up as light is fascinating, even beautiful, it does not bring about any increase of empathy or kindness, (nor a decrease of violence or harm) in the world. Neither does any character's pain result in a predictable outcome; some find love or friendship, and some are doomed. Nonetheless, Brockmeier's ideas are intriguing. Just imagine if we could see everyone else's pain, not to mention our own, as a glow, a ray, a blaze or a glitter of light. At the very least, one would ponder the meaning, the importance and the role of pain in someone's life. None but the most insensitive of readers could come to the end of The Illumination without having her relationship with pain altered.
In beautiful sentences, with startling images of injuries, bodies, color and light, but most of all in his acute penetration into human longings and failings, Brockmeier creates a symphony in six movements that brings the reader face to face with life in all its harsh reality and unlimited possibility. Just as the reader becomes invested in one character's story, Brockmeier moves on to another, leaving the outcome of each story to the reader's imagination, and the finale is a dream of hope and a promise of eternity.
In an interview for Del Sol Literary Dialogues Kevin Brockmeier asks, "So why do I place my characters in fantastic, absurd situations? My first and most honest answer would be that it's a way of activating my imagination... So the element of fantasy that runs through my stories is mainly practical. That said, I do think the universe we live in is itself a fantastic place, filled with wonders, and that our minds are constructed so as to see within the world around us reflections of our own consciousness."
The Illumination has garnered mostly glowing reviews for its meticulous writing and its emphasis on love and connection, but an underlying sense of sorrow and loss and an unapologetically direct look at human suffering move the novel outside the realm of complete reassurance or comfort regarding life. It is recommended to readers willing to suspend a certain amount of disbelief in order to look at life, and the world, from a new perspective.
This review was originally published in February 2011, and has been updated for the February 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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