Monday, July 30, 2007

Katie Allen reviews Radiance by Shaena Lambert

It is 1952, and World War II is officially over, yet its impact still reverberates across the world. Radiance tells the story of Keiko Kitigawa, an 18-year-old survivor of the Hiroshima bomb, who has arrived in the US to receive regenerative treatment on her scarred face. Her articulacy back in Japan led to her being chosen as a media ‘voice’ of the atrocity in the US, but she is slowly revealed to be not the passive ‘victim’ the oh-so-charitable Americans would like, and the novel becomes a tussle between who is manipulating who. Bound up in Keiko’s story is her ‘host mother’ Daisy Lawrence and husband Walter, whose task it is to look after Keiko during her stay. The young girl’s presence immediately causes ripples of disturbance in their quiet suburban community.

Riverside Meadows is a recently built settlement where ‘Everything seemed new’ and you could still ‘smell the churned dirt’. The newness is a rather desperate grasping for domesticity and security after the horrors of war, yet, perhaps inevitably, the ‘prim boulevards’ are not the safe environs they seem, but an uneasy site of curtain-twitching and mysteries behind the white picket fence, familiar throughout popular culture, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to American Beauty: one outsider observes: ‘there were at least a thousand neuroses skittering like mice through the streets of that suburb.’

This is a place where the neighbours ‘know’ about war veteran and Japanese POW Ed Warburgh’s ‘tingling in his feet, shooting pains that he relieves by soaking them in seltzer. They know he has nightmares’. As for his wife, Fran, ‘Everyone knew that he hit her sometimes.’ Daisy herself is a symbol of the Fifties housewife, who dreams of ‘Walter heading out the door, looking handsome and clever while Daisy fed the baby or vacuumed or even found time to bake bread.’ Yet their relationship never fully recovers from her miscarriage, and Daisy finds that she must repress her grief, which is regarded as ‘something unseemly’ by her husband, and the neighbourhood wives soon ‘grew tired of her sorrow.’

Into this unsteady mix of domestic faƧade and internal anguish comes Keiko: ‘Daisy felt a pull of guilt, as though what she had started, inviting Keiko, might squirm out of her control and start a brush fire.’ Through her very Otherness, she is both alluring and threatening not only to the residents of Riverside Meadows, but to the US audiences before which she is paraded as a ‘Hiroshima Maiden’. Perhaps most damagingly, she becomes to Daisy a conduit of all the maternal longing she can never express.

Keiko herself is used by the Hiroshima Project as a symbol, of American generosity, of the horrors of war, as an indictment of nuclear weaponry. Yet although her scars and losses are very real, whether the ‘real’ Keiko is ever known, by the committee, by the voyeuristic public, by the yearning Daisy, or indeed by the reader, is a conundrum. When Keiko refuses to return Daisy’s smile, we share Daisy’s indignation that ‘Why should this girl, whom they had brought to New York at such expense, be refusing her smile?’ And yet it is Daisy who champions and supports Keiko as they both realise she is to become an exploited posterchild of the Hiroshima Project. And it is Daisy whom Keiko lets down the most. I found Keiko’s coolly repressed personality difficult to warm to, yet it entwines fittingly in a novel threaded with facades and fakery, reality and repression, in a Fifties environment of McCarthyist suspicion.

Katie Allen reviews Radiance by Shaena Lambert, published by Virago, £12.99

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