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Posted August 23, 2012
Luminous: To Do Good for Others. A review by Rolf Yngve
What are our intentions? What do we hope we are doing for others? What comes of our good intentions? Alix Ohlin’s novel is an extraordinary work written about one of the great human instincts, to help another human being. And it is written about the failures caregivers must experience, the strange, dark corner within us all that causes us to injure those who care for us best. It is a novel about emotional betrayal, insensitivity, and the courage of those who continue to care for others despite the damage done to them. And, in the midst of this, it is a novel about hope. The story is told in a broken-time sequence that is expertly woven between four characters. Annie is a self-lacerating, ferociously self-involved adolescent who finds herself grown up to be an actress in New York caring for a young, pregnant runaway who is detestably self-involved as Annie ever had been. Grace, Annie’s former therapist, finds her faith in herself destroyed by Annie, Annie’s parents, and the third character, Tug. Tug is a perfectly rendered victim of the massive failure of caregiving experienced by those who must try to help the victims of genocide. Finally, Mitch, the husband Annie rejected, is rejected again and again by those who ‘employ’ him to provide care for their children and themselves. These intertwined lives are suffused with failure in their attempts to care for and love others. Yet the wisdom and depth of Ohlin’s novel is achieved through a fundamental truth that seems completely evident to the reader, yet just beyond the reach of the characters themselves. That truth? Personal commitment and sacrifice can be their own reward. But do we really believe this? Ohlin tests our belief in human goodness at every corner. Good people in this book are also cruel, cruel people are good. They struggle with the tension we all experience between the needs of others and the needs of oneself. Each of them fails, each succeeds. Ohlin holds up human nature like a jewel for us to examine, then illuminates this examination with wisdom and unswerving sensitivity. In a literary world that seems populated with characters – and authors and critics – who are driven and fascinated by the sociopathic and perverse, Ohlin grips me with her vision of imperfect lives made more whole through integrity, honesty and courage. This book is indeed the literature Pound was talking about, “Language charged with meaning.” An exceptional mind and beautiful philosophy suffuses this book; its language presents a clean and articulate representation of that mind. There have been a number of critical reviews of this book in the mainstream press. I am frankly surprised at the virulence and anger reflected in these reviews. Perhaps the critical community can’t stand a model of selflessness and integrity, a model that rises above cynicism, the fake irony of a snarky tone, the self-aggrandizements and cruelty of an Ayn Rand philosophy. Ironically, Ohlin’s novel argues against such speculation. Ohlin’s novel tells us that humans, real humans, will try to do good. Read this book. It’s a wonder of thought, well-paced, and well-told. Read it for the delight of reading, but read it also because this book has charged the academic-literary community with the need to examine itself. Read it because it will leave you satisfied, mystified, and content with the world Alix Ohlin reveals to us. Our world, the real world. The one with real consequences.
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Posted June 17, 2013
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