A soft-hearted spiritual parable that aims for beguiling but succumbs to cloying.
The author’s first novel since The Brief History of the Dead (2006) is another vaguely futuristic fable with meditations on mortality, which explore the beauty and redemption in suffering. The title refers to an inexplicable phenomenon that might have lasted for decades or forever. One day, peoples’ injuries start glowing or even blazing with light. And not only their physical injuries but their emotional wounds as well. And not just humans but even inanimate objects. (“Jars of peanut butter could be hurt just like people.”) A surgeon in the operating room shouts, “Sunglasses! I need some sunglasses here!” However imaginative the reader finds that vision, the plot pivots on an oft-used convention: the object that passes from one stranger to the next and transforms their lives. The object in this case is a book of one-sentence love notes from a husband to his wife, which starts changing hands in the hospital, after she dies from an auto accident that leaves him physically and emotionally debilitated. First claimed by a divorced woman who had shared a hospital room with the wife, and who thought the husband had also died, it then passes back to him, as he attempts to return to some semblance of normal life through his job as a newspaper photographer. Plainly the “The Illumination,” as the phenomenon has quickly been dubbed, is a photographic boon, with the photographer wrestling with his conscience over whether he’s exploiting those who mutilate themselves just to see the light or simply capturing those images (until he himself succumbs to the temptation of self-inflicted wounds). Others who briefly obtain possession of the book range from “a crazy little retard”—a silent boy, likely autistic—to a female author of fables and parables (like this one?) whose mouth ulcer makes the readings she gives a painful experience.
More illumination than revelation.