Shaena Lambert has no trouble identifying the moment of conception for Radiance, her masterful first novel (Random House Canada, $32.95). It was in 1986 and Lambert, then a peace activist, was coordinating the Vancouver Centennial Peace Festival. As part of her duties, she was unpacking everyday objects—a pocket watch, a chunk of concrete—rescued from Hiroshima. Taking off their wrappings was easy; decoding what those humble items meant to her, however, took the better part of two decades.
In a West Side café, Lambert discusses the genesis of the novel, which centres on a visit to America by Keiko Kitigawa, a survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Radiance is set in 1952, and Keiko, now 18, has been brought to the States by a well-meaning group of antinuclear activists keen to use her for their own ends: to tour the country as the Hiroshima Maiden, speaking firsthand about the devastation of the A-bomb. (The story is based on real events.)
Politics pervades the novel (the country is fired up not just about the bomb but Communism too), but one thing Radiance is not is a screed. “I think the book is political,” Lambert acknowledges, “but it's not a ”˜Peace activist writes novel' novel because it's not a polemic. I don't think novels should be polemics. I don't think they function well as polemics. But there's no question that if you as a writer are writing out of the things that move you and motivate you, at a certain point you go beyond character and beyond place to what makes us human beings and what we worry about and care about. I was motivated enough in my 20s to spend seven years working on trying to stop cruise-missile testing and stop weapons in space and nuclear submarines, and I think that there's no question that that's transferred into lifelong obsessions that act themselves out in fiction.”
The notion that consequences can't be dodged is a central metaphor inside the novel as well. Keiko carries the seeds of radiation within her, and her New York host family—protagonist Daisy and her husband, Walter—also spend the book reaping what they have sown. It's all a little New Testament, but Lambert sees more Jung than Jesus: “Afterwards, I did find this quote from Jung that I had been thinking about a lot when I was writing The Falling Woman : ”˜What you refuse to acknowledge gets reenacted as fate.' That's a good adage for fiction anyway, isn't it?”
Daisy coming to terms with a miscarriage, Walter atoning for idealism past, Keiko so desperate for survival and a new start that she'll even take on the role of the Hiroshima Maiden—the characters are all compelled by subterranean urges that surface over the course of the book, which is just one reason its complexities are so satisfying. Throw in Lambert's assured writing, her period details, and her keen grasp of her creations' psychology and it's no wonder Radiance is so gripping—and so rooted in the everyday. Daisy and Walter have a nuanced marriage, more realistic than many grand romances of fiction: “I think marriages are often like that,” Lambert asserts, “where somebody goes missing [emotionally]”¦but that doesn't mean you stop loving them. I think that they do love and respect each other. You can love somebody very passionately for an extended period of time but still have many, many problems. In fact, in a way that's the definition of marriage.”
Her characters' aspirations are also less outsize than what novels tend to present: “I think a lot of times people think their longing should be for something other than a house and children. And yet it's so basic. What Daisy wants is so basic and so much a part of what makes so many people happy.”
Shaena Lambert reads with Jane Smiley on March 12 at the Waterfront Theatre. For tickets, $15, visit www.ticketmaster.ca/.