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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
About the author
SHAENA LAMBERT’s stories have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Walrus, and have been chosen three years running for Best Canadian Stories. Her first book of stories, The Falling Woman, was a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year and her first novel, Radiance, was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Award and the Ethel Wilson Prize. She has been a fiction mentor with Humber College and The Writer's Studio of Simon Fraser University. She lives in Vancouver, B.C., with her family.
- Short-listed, BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
- Short-listed, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
Excerpt: Radiance (by (author) Shaena Lambert)
When the Hiroshima Project was long over and all the dust had settled, Daisy discovered that she could close her eyes anywhere, in a crowded room or doing the dishes, and see the girl getting off the plane. She would always think of Keiko as “the girl,” though she had been eighteen when she came to stay, old enough to be called a woman. The press seized upon the name Hiroshima Maiden – such an odd way to describe an A-bomb survivor: as though Keiko might have stepped out of an Arthurian legend, wearing a cone-shaped princess hat; as though being ravaged by the bomb might have transformed the girl, giving her, along with a history of suffering, some fairy-tale virtues. Purity perhaps. Or maidenly goodness.
Daisy Lawrence had stood in a small roped-off area on the tarmac of Mitchell Air Force Base, waiting for the airplane to land. Irene Day, one of the Hiroshima Project’s principal organizers, stood beside her. The rain was stiff that day–stinging pellets that flew at them sideways out of the gauzy marsh east of the air base. A few feet away a dozen journalists huddled in a grey group, hats pulled low.
Irene Day had dressed appropriately – she always did – in a mannish little fedora and matching kid gloves. She was the sort of woman, Daisy thought, who would choose the right outfit for a hurricane. Next to her Daisy felt dowdy – blond hair frizzing in the wet, feet aching in tight patent-leather pumps.
Of course she knew better than to be thinking about her shoes at a time like this. This was an important moment in history, this chill March day of 1952: she was about to greet a Hiroshima survivor, the first ever to set foot on American soil. Daisy pulled in her stomach, already held tightly in place by her girdle, and did her best to adopt a look of calm expectancy. She moved closer to a freckle-faced young photographer, so that his broad back blocked the rain, which seemed to come from all directions now – stinging her chin and cheeks and the backs of her knees.
At last the gleaming plane hove into view above their heads. It headed out to sea, then banked and came in low, bouncing at the end of the runway, rising like a bird, landing, hissing, skipping. It hung poised for several seconds on one wheel before righting itself with a bump and coming to a stop, emitting black exhaust in a rather alarming fashion. For what seemed an inordinately long time the airplane engine thudded and the propellers churned and thumped. But at last the propellers stilled, the plane gave a final shudder and several air force cadets rolled the steel stairs into place.
The airplane door, massive and unyielding, seemed to need some battering knocks from the inside before it swung open. The pilot, a wing commander in a navy uniform complete with epaulettes, stepped jauntily down the steps, shook hands with the cadets, then walked across the runway. He was followed by two stewards and twenty tanned, robust soldiers – the plane seemed endlessly to disgorge them – men returning from military duty in Hawaii, where the plane had touched down for refuelling.
Then at last Keiko stepped onto the platform. She lifted one gloved hand to straighten her hat. How strangely it glowed in the overcast air, whiter than white. Even from this distance Daisy could see the mottled rhubarb stain on her cheek. The famous atomic scar. She tottered on the platform, looking as though the hard rain might blow her away. The purse Keiko clasped–Daisy learned later–had been picked up in a Honolulu gift shop. It was encrusted with tiny iridescent nautiluses.
Daisy felt an urge to say something to mark the magnitude of the occasion. She turned to Irene, but she was already up ahead, arguing with one of the cadets guarding the gate. He clicked the metal latch with his thumb in an irritating manner, then shook his head severely.
“But I’m the chief organizer of this project,” Irene was saying. She wasn’t, but how was the cadet to know? He shrugged. Irene raised her hand, as though intending to knock the boy’s cap off. “Let me by,” she hissed, but all at once the freckle-faced photographer, the one whose broad back had sheltered Daisy from the rain, strode forward and leapt the rope. The cadet cried out for him to stop, but the photographer had an agenda of his own: he dashed towards the plane, leaping puddles, soaking his trouser legs, letting his hat blow off, not even turning to see it roll wildly away. And now the rest of them followed suit, and Irene and Daisy were picked up and blown, or so it felt, over the trampled rope and across the runway. They were no longer the official welcoming delegation, not by a long shot: they were part of a mob.
That was Keiko Kitigawa’s welcome to America.
The girl turned towards the advancing stampede. With one hand she groped behind her for the banister. The other hand she held up, fingers spread in an ineffectual fan, attempting to shield her face, with its bubbled scar, from the repeated flash of the cameras.
Imagine a girl to whom you can attach any stereotype.
Imagine her stepping off a plane, holding up a hand to keep her prim round hat in place.
Imagine her as inscrutable.
Imagine her as incomparably damaged.
Imagine her as carrying the seeds of something entirely new – radioactive seeds – lodged in her bones, skin, hair.
Imagine her as the first of her kind to come to America: children of the atomic bomb. Children who are asked, repeatedly, in letters that arrive each spring, to donate their bodies to science, so that when they die – six years later, or forty – their hearts can be examined, their cells studied, their kidneys filled with turquoise dye, placed in a Petri dish.
"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
"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