Illumination Night: Love and Redemption in the Hands of a Master Storyteller


We enter Alice Hoffman’s Illumination Night through the eyes of Simon, stretching to gaze out of his window on a hot summer morning. Simple details give us Simon’s four-year-old world—his room, his mother in the kitchen, his father out in the shed, the sound of the sea, something gauzy and white floating from the window of the house next door.

In the house next door, Elizabeth Renny, seventy-four and fearing another winter alone, gazes through the gauzy whit curtain and feels the weight of her bones lighten.

In the shed, Simon’s father sees his wife’s plates slide off her kiln and looks out to see the gauzy white shape of Elizabeth Renny on the ground.

Thus Alice Hoffman paints her canvas—two houses in a lazy hot seaside summer morning. Yet the very ordinariness of the scene and people contain all of the driving forces of the novel. Simon is small and fears he will not grow. His mother, Vonny, fears for him also and wants more engagement from her silent husband, Andre, who is happiest alone. Next door, Elizabeth feels the weight of age lift and decides she can fly.

When granddaughter, Jody, is brought in to care for Elizabeth, who has broken her leg and collarbone, the cast is very nearly complete. Moving from viewpoint to viewpoint, Hoffman weaves the longings and impulses of the characters that carry them toward tragedy and test their resiliency and capacity for growth. It is as though we can hold the group within our cupped hand as watch the human capacity for folly, tragedy, resiliency and growth played out in full.  Alice Hoffman is surely on my list of master storytellers.

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