Hot War to Cold War
- Shaena Lambert (Author)
Radiance. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Donna Coates
In 1952, seven years after the Americans brought an end to the Second World War by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a dozen “Hiroshima Maidens” (also known as “atomic-bomb victims,” or hibakusha) travelled to Tokyo and Osaka, where Hiroshima doctors administered check-ups and treated keloids. Three years later, the Americans invited twenty-five “Hiroshima Maidens” to the United States for reconstructive surgery. In Radiance, Vancouver writer Shaena Lambert blurs these dates and events by bringing only one “maiden,” the eighteen-year-old Keiko Kitigawa, to New York City in 1952 to have a disfiguring facial scar and keloid removed. Lambert presumably alters the time frame to emphasize that the two superpowers—the Americans and the Soviets—were both developing super bombs hundreds of times more destructive than the atomic bomb, and that the Americans were preparing to detonate their first “h-bomb” in 1952. At the same time, the American public was becoming increasing concerned about the Soviet espionage penetration of the US government, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities was conducting witch hunts against alleged spies such as Alger Hiss and Ethel Rosenberg (whose guilt even today remains unsubstantiated). Conservatism also existed in the mass suburban developments which had sprung up after the war. In the 1946-constructed Riverside Meadows suburb where Lambert’s central characters, Daisy and Walter Lawrence live, the local Residents’ Committee operates its own “spy ring” which attempts to ensure that conformity and “normality” prevail among the predominantly nuclear families, but ignores that traumatized war veterans are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or miserable stay-at-home mothers are succumbing to nervous breakdowns or suicide.
On the surface, the members of the (fictional) Hiroshima Project appear to have invited Keiko to New York out of a desire for atonement, but there are strings attached to their goodwill gesture. They require Keiko to sign a contract which commits her to speaking publicly about what happened to her on August 6, 1945, and assure her that her harrowing tale will raise funds to bring more “maidens” to New York. They also request that she advocate nuclear test bans. But in actuality, they are using Keiko, one of their former “sworn enemies,” to combat their new enemies, the Soviets. The plastic surgeon, who works for both the Hiroshima Project and the Atomic Bomb Commission, is less concerned about fixing Keiko’s face than he is about exploring the “effect of the atomic bomb on the human psyche,” because “understanding the psychological responses in a civilian population is vital to national security.”
The doctor also operates under another hidden agenda: a minor radio personality, he intends that his “groundbreaking” surgical methods will make him a celebrity on the new, revolutionary 1950s form of entertainment—television; and the writer of the “Women’s Circle” column in the Sunday Review uses Keiko to shore up her dwindling affair with the surgeon. The journalist also recruits Daisy, a former university friend, to be Keiko’s home stay mother because she believes Daisy’s goodness will draw Keiko out. In turn, Daisy is flattered to be a “part of history” which involves prominent figures like Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, and Bertrand Russell, but she has also had several miscarriages and is desperate to be a mother, even a short-term, surrogate one. The project members assume that because Keiko has undergone so much suffering—her mother and grandfather were killed by the bomb, her soldier-father died in Manchuria—she will have developed “fairy-tale virtues” such as “purity” or “maidenly goodness,” and will thus be grateful for their help. But Keiko, as cunning and sly as a fox (foxes are important throughout the novel), is neither virtuous nor appreciative. She lies, steals, betrays her benefactors, and demands money from the project for speaking engagements. The organizers are furious when they realize she has been using them to get what she wants—an unblemished face and money to reinvent herself.
Although Radiance is set entirely in New York, with only one brief reference to the wounding and torture of Canadian (and American) soldiers in the Japanese POW camp Shampuito, Canadian writers such as Dennis Bock, whose novel The Ash Garden features another fascinating “Hiroshima Maiden,” and Marie Clements, whose play Burning Vision documents the catastrophic effects of the atomic bomb on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have also made valuable contributions to this growing and vital body of literature.
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Books reviewed: The Journey Prize Anthology 2000 by Catherine Bush, Marc Glassman, and Hal Niedzviecki, Write Turns: New Direction in Canadian Fiction by Joy Gugeler, and Islands West: Stories from the Coast by Keith Harrison
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MLA: Coates, Donna and Lambert, Shaena. Hot War to Cold War. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 153 - 154)
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