RADIANCE by Shaena Lambert (Random House), 325 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Shaena Lambert's first novel gently detonates the emotional land mines dormant in diverse characters.
Irene, a twice-divorced journalist relegated by 1952's gender biases to the Women's Circle column, would rather be writing serious social commentary. She joins the Hiroshima Project, part of the ban-the-bomb movement, whose main focus is bringing Keiko Kitigawa, an 18-year-old survivor of Hiroshima, to New York City.
Keiko is to undergo free facial scar surgery in exchange for speaking out against the bomb. Daisy Lawrence, a happy-on-the-surface suburban housewife, is chosen to host Keiko's stay. Her job seems simple: coax out of Keiko the story of what happened the day the bomb dropped so she can become an eloquent political tool and perfect poster child.
Walter, Daisy's curmudgeonly husband, types away at his novel, increasingly suspicious of the project's good intentions. Their next door neighbour, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, digs a bomb shelter in the yard when he learns of Keiko's arrival. Daisy, along with her suburban neighbours, becomes obsessed with the visitor, a less compliant and straightforward victim than everyone had hoped for.
Lambert gets under the skin of all these characters, slowly uncovering their secrets and flaws. In textured prose, they contemplate their humanity (or lack thereof) in the context of the American dream, McCarthyism and the ever-increasing momentum of atomic technologies.
Thanks to Lambert's excellent research, Radiance shines with moments both horrific and oddly humorous illustrating the state of 50s America. The characters develop at a pace so precise, you hardly notice you've been waiting to uncover the secret at the heart of the story for nearly 300 pages. And then you're given what you've been promised.
A solid, well-crafted debut with a fascinating premise.
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