Friday, June 22, 2007

Pg. 99: Shaena Lambert's "Radiance"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Shaena Lambert's Radiance.

About the book, from the publisher's website:
Later, when Daisy remembered that night, she could smell the scent of honeysuckle at the window and see the moon on the floorboards. But in her memories Keiko wasn’t bandaged: her face was broken down the middle, just like the moon. One half was pure and white, the other half mottled and porous. The unbroken side was as smooth as porcelain, terrifying in its brightness, but in every memory it was the pocked side that drew Daisy in. (From Radiance, p. 192)

It’s 1952. Eighteen-year-old Hiroshima survivor Keiko Kitigawa arrives in New York City for surgery to cut away the scar marring her lovely face. Sponsored by The Hiroshima Project, Keiko is expected to be a media darling, “The Hiroshima Maiden,” selected for her scarred beauty and for the talent she briefly revealed to Project doctors in Japan for putting words to the inexpressible horrors she has witnessed. But the Keiko who arrives in America does not perform as scripted, preferring to recall instead her grandfather’s dappled gardens and tales of trickster foxes. Frustrated by her recalcitrance, the Project presses Keiko’s suburban host mother, Daisy Lawrence, into duty, tasking her with drawing out the girl’s horrific story, the one they need for the media circuit. When Daisy reluctantly agrees, she must fight to enter Keiko’s sphere of intimacy, and is shocked by what she learns there.

Like Keiko, Daisy has a few surprises in store for the Project. Her gentle maternal character has been vouched for by her long-time friend Irene Day, the glamorous Manhattan women’s columnist who recruited her. But even Daisy is taken aback by what bubbles up from beneath her calm domestic existence in Riverside Meadows, drawn to the surface by Keiko’s presence. Life will never be the same.

Also deeply affected by Keiko’s stay is Daisy’s husband, Walter, a nearly extinguished literary light whose off-Broadway play once garnered critical acclaim. He has been fighting for years with a hopelessly unfinished manuscript, obsessing over the tragic story of a friend who fell victim to the turmoil of Stalinist Russia. But Walter is haunted by another event in his past, something that happened in the shadows of the McCarthy trials and that he has never divulged to his wife.

Keiko, bandaged after her surgery like the Invisible Man, becomes a conduit for secret grief. A barrage of letters and gifts from strangers arrive at their door. Riverside Meadows housewives, a photographer covering her story, and even a former Japanese-held POW heap their weightiest confidences upon her. Perhaps it is the force of her tragedy that pulls them in, or perhaps it is because her bandages make her seem like a blank receptacle for their own pain. Whatever the cause, Daisy finds it increasingly difficult to find the real Keiko beneath these burdens. But she will fight with all her strength to protect the girl, even at incalculable cost.

Set against the backdrops of the Atomic Age and McCarthyism, Radiance is a precise and nuanced rendition of an historic time, depicted through a highly intimate lens and driven by acts of great love, terrible betrayals and immense compassion.
Among the praise for Radiance:
"The emerging lawn-lined suburbs of 1950s America Shaena Lambert describes in her debut novel Radiance are familiar - rendered by contemporary chroniclers such as Richard Yates. Though Lambert was born a decade later in Canada, this is no watery pastiche. She skilfully threads her characters' emotions and relationships with a brilliantly rendered historical background of McCarthyism and idealistic internationalism. Radiance is an absorbing debut which exquisitely locates unsentimental emotional histories in an America buoyant with post-war consumerism and racked with paranoia."
- Financial Times of London

'Fascinating… skilful…artful.'
- Scotland on Sunday

"It's brilliant, really, the way this author deals with these characters. Without wasting time Lambert gives us so much."
- January Magazine

"It must be something in the water up there, but Canadian women writers are a remarkable breed - names like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields offer a guarantee of a good story well told. And now there's a new name to add the pantheon: Shaena Lambert, whose debut novel, Radiance, is as compelling, as thoughtful and as fundamentally readable as those of her better-known sisters. It is a mark of Lambert's skill as a writer that I wept. And it's entirely possible that you will too."
- Sunday Independent

"This beautifully written novel captures the essence of Fifties America without striving for effect. Lambert, who has published an acclaimed collection of short stories, adds to Canada's reputation for nurturing its literary writers."
- The Independent

'Lambert's writing, like Keiko herself, is detached, cool and compelling'
- Daily Mail

"Lambert's powerful debut novel is more subtle than its plot line suggests. Lambert paints with fresh colours the now familiar setting of manicured, 1950s US suburbia."
- Metro London

"A fascinating debut novel."
- Bella
Shaena Lambert is also the author of a book of short stories, The Falling Woman, which was chosen by The Globe and Mail as a top book of the year and was short-listed for the Danuta Gleed Award. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in many prominent journals and magazines, including Toronto Life, Image (Dublin), Marvels & Tales – The Journey of Fairytale Studies, Nimrod, Descant, The Malahat Review, The North American Review and Prism International, as well as being selected for The Journey Prize Anthology, a yearly publication of Canada’s best new short fiction.

Visit Lambert's website and read an excerpt from Radiance.

The Page 99 Test: Radiance.

--Marshal Zeringue