Radiance by Shaena Lambert 


by Shaena Lambert

Published by Random House Canada

336 pages, 2007

Buy it online



Seeing the Light

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

Brilliant. The flash from the first atom bomb, exploding over Hiroshima was so bright that Keiko shielded one side of her face. The other, unprotected side carries a large keloid, a red-brown scar:

The scar covered the left side of her face, fat at the top, tapering to a point near her chin, like the outline of South America. It even had bubbles and gritty rifts resembling the ridges and chasms of mountains and canyons.

It's 1952, and Keiko has been chosen to come to New York to have her ravaged face repaired, not only as a charitable goodwill gesture by the concerned Americans who make up The Hiroshima Project. They are sponsoring her visit and operation with a second goal in mind. Keiko is to be their media darling, a poster child, for the frenzied press, a spokesperson to speak out against the madness and carnage of the bomb. Time is of the essence; America is heady with power, already busy developing the hydrogen bomb. They want Keiko to tell of her horrific experience in the hope that her tale will help wake America. There's nothing wrong with this goal. Keiko has known from the start that this is her price; but what will she do when the cost of reliving this trauma again and again can't be met?

Her host mother, Daisy Lawrence, is a plump, unfulfilled housewife. Unable to bear children and living in a post W.W. II world where working wives are still not the norm, she copes as best she can with the help of her fridge. Daisy's husband, Walter, is a radio scriptwriter who has spent the years of their marriage working on a book he eventually destroys, a book he had hoped would salvage his self-esteem and assuage his guilt over betraying a friend. Laconic, solitary and uncommunicative, he offers scant respite for Daisy.

Brilliant. Lambert's portrayal of the 18-year old Keiko is spot on. That time spent in Hiroshima must have been considerable. How else could she have shaped such a credible character? Keiko lost her beloved mother and grandfather in the atomic blast while still a child. Consumed by guilt because she stayed home that day, forcing her mother to take her grandfather's forgotten lunch to him in the city, and thereby walking to a death that would have been Keiko's, she has channeled that guilt into striving for excellence -- achieving high honours in school, speaking impeccable English, and convincing those who come to interview her that she is the best spokesperson for their project. It doesn't hurt that she is also beautiful, despite of her traumatized skin.

Author Shaena Lambert, whose short story collection, The Falling Woman, was published five years ago, has wisely and obviously taken her time with this second work. The three women -- Daisy, Irene and Keiko -- are all interesting in themselves and the relationships between the three are the stronger for it.

Irene is a successful professional, a writer on the Sunday Review and a member of the Hiroshima Project. An old classmate and friend of Daisy's, she is less successful in love. It's Irene who has talked Daisy into becoming the homestay mother. She will regret it later.

Although definitely in the background, each of the men is drawn sufficiently to be believable. Their dreams, fears and relationships are deftly sketched so that the reader can fill in the rest. There's Tom, the young photographer who dotes on Keiko; Walter who surprisingly finds it so easy to unburden his secrets to her; the senior editor of the Sunday Review, Dean Atchity, Irene's boss and also head of the Hiroshima Project; and the chief surgeon who interviewed Keiko in Japan, Dr. Raymond Carney. It's brilliant, really, the way this author deals with these characters. Without wasting time Lambert gives us so much.

Add to this mix the complications, guilt and paranoia inherent in the McCarthy era. Stir in the developing national pride over the success of the hydrogen bomb and its backlash of concerned citizens lobbying for the end of testing, and you have a story that's almost too large for its pages.

A further measure of this writer's skill is in the fact that although Keiko does some abominable things, you will not dismiss or dislike her. And although Daisy is a candidate for martyrdom in her sensitivity, her actions and her capacity for forgiveness, she still feels very real.

Lambert, who, it turns out, did travel to Hiroshima for her research, was very cautious with this book. I think it scared her. In promotional material for Random House, she has explained that even "when writing about the searing brightness of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima -- maybe especially in this case -- a too-bright light could kill the story. For me, certainly, approaching Radiance sideways, with my eyes half-closed, was the only way I could say what I needed to say."

Shaena Lambert is a writer to watch. | June 2007

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.