Desert Isle Keeper
Illumination Night was my favorite book for a decade of my life. It and Josephine Humphrey’s Dreams of Sleep are two stories I wish I had the talent to have written. I read both before I was married and now, after almost 35 years of marriage, their perspectives on the complexity of a partnered life still resonate.
Illumination Night is the story of Vonny and Andre, their son Simon, Elizabeth the old lady who lives next door, and Jody Elizabeth’s rebellious granddaughter. There’s also a giant who hides from the world while tending chickens. All live in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard.
As the book begins, Vonny and Andre are at a strained time in their marriage. Their son, Simon, is abnormally short for his age and Vonny not only worries about him, she worries about everything, so much so that she becomes unable to leave the house. And though Andre loves Vonny, he’s unable to understand her now and is increasingly withdrawn, spending much of his time restoring old motorcycles in their garage.
Elizabeth, at seventy-three, is recovering from having jumped out of her upstairs window–she momentarily believed she could fly. She needs someone to care for her and takes in her 16 year old granddaughter Jody who is as reckless as wildfire. Elizabeth was never close to her daughter, Jody’s mother, but she and Jody meet each other’s needs as Jody finds her way to adulthood and Elizabeth finds her way to the finish of her long life.
These characters, achingly and accurately rendered, change themselves and each other. Jody, who sometimes babysits Simon, has a disastrous lust for Andre which Vonny fears will destroy her marriage. And yet the two women become friends, united by their feelings for Simon. Simon, who watched Elizabeth jump, is determined to grow taller and, after seeing the boy they call The Giant, begins to understand what it means to grow up in more ways than one. The Giant and Jody, well, their relationship will remake them both.
Hoffman explores the connections and conflicts in desire and danger, love and death, laughter and tears, fear and contentment. Her empathy for her characters is unparalleled. For years Hoffman has been dismissed as a serious author–and, yes, I blame the patriarchy–and that’s always pissed me off. Over the past four and a half decades, she’s mined the myriad magic of women’s lives and loves using language that verges on poetry. I don’t always love her books but they’re a damn sight better than the endless NYT best-sellers, too often penned by bitter and depressed men, who seem to believe that love, joy, and kindness themselves are fairy tales. Hoffman knows they’re not, that every life has the potential for beauty and wonder. I’ve read most of her books and many are excellent. This one, to me, is one of her very best.