Wanting Radiance, Karen McElmurray’s powerful and lyrical new novel, is part murder mystery and part ghost story, part love triangle and part road trip, part prayer and part poem. The story centers on Miracelle Loving, who, after a night of drinking in a country-punk fusion bar in Knoxville, Tennessee, begins to hear her dead mother’s voice, as clearly as if she were whispering in Miracelle’s ear—prophecies, admonishments, guidance, warnings. Her mother, a fortune teller, was murdered when Miracelle was just a girl, and we join Miracelle—grown now, adrift—as she continues her mother’s tradition of moving from town to town, holing up in motels, waiting tables, packing her bags in the middle of the night to leave behind spurned lovers and empty rooms—the lives she could’ve lived.
But in Knoxville, Miracelle does find a home, of sorts. She meets a man, Cody Black, for whom love seems a real and rare possibility. She lands a gig as a talent scout for Willy’s Wonderoma, a carnival of anomalies and oddities, the largest museum this side of the Mason Dixon…full of wonders otherwise overlooked…a kingdom of the dispossessed. A mysterious man. An intriguing job. For a moment, it almost seems like it could be enough, and perhaps it’s precisely because of this, Miracelle’s first real temptation to put down roots, that her mother, Ruby, returns—disembodied, but irrefutably Ruby.
Just as Miracelle is haunted by her mother, so she’s also haunted by her own aimlessness, her recklessness, her inability to commit. Love ties you down. Ties you to things. A house. A car. A one-eyed cat or a driveway with trees and why would anyone want that? A life that could just about make you forget being alive. Miracelle both resents and romanticizes her pathological compulsion to flee, the allure of dirt roads and back roads and country roads and roads and roads away from wherever she’s at towards something, anything, new—a place, a lover, work, a tract of land, some deep heart of the earth [she] could never, never find.
Armed with her mother’s voice, Miracelle’s restlessness takes on a new and pointed urgency—Ruby nudging her to untangle her story, the mysteries that distract her from her own life. So, true to form, Miracelle abandons Knoxville in search of her mother’s murderer, whom she suspects to be the father she’s never met. And the search for her father is also a search for Appalachia’s Atlantis—Radiance, a town she knows only by a tune Ruby sang. Love me in the morning, love me at night. Love me, Radiance, honey, till long past midnight. In Radiance, Miracelle thinks she might find the answers to her lineage, her mother’s death, her own wild heart.
On the road, we find the kingdom of the dispossessed everywhere. In its sense of place and in its sense of the people who inhabit that place, Wanting Radiance is reminiscent of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. You are transported to the fringe. To twilight. To the mystical periphery. I like a song like a dream. And dreams like stories. And so it is. This novel glows in its reverence for diners, hollers, tattoo parlors, and honky-tonks, and it celebrates the congregations that worship there—their communion three-fingers of whiskey and a chilled chaser, their psalms a jukebox or a fiddle and a stomping foot. These places and people are too idiosyncratic not to be real, or something more than real, and what an accomplishment, when a book feels truer than the world it’s born into.
Wanting Radiance is a braided narrative, told from various perspectives in various towns at various times. As a reader, the experience is like climbing a family tree. You piece together the mystery the closer you get to the top, each branch giving up its story, each chapter wending through the foliage towards a fuller picture. It is, as they say, a page-turner, but one in which the momentum is built not only on a compelling story, but on the integrity and complexity of its characters, the lyricism of each line.
Of course, this is a book about wanting: love, a home, a future, a family. Something that can’t be named. It’s a book about naming: a feeling, a town, a man. Here, things embody their names, resist their names, become their names. Cities like Wind and Rain, Wyoming. Fine, Tennessee. Smyte, Kentucky. Silky Falls, Idaho. Piquant, Tennessee. Quietude, Kentucky. Rosebloom, Ohio. And our characters. Cody Black. The man covered in tattoos. Ruby. The orphic, blood-red gem. Miracelle Loving. Miracelle: cousin to miracle. Loving: the push and pull of our hearts. That is what is at the center of everything. Wanting. It’s here, in all its intricacy: wanting, wanting not to want—everything in between. I ached with lonely and wanted to be alone and I wanted nothing at all to do with my own self. McElmurray explores these dialectics, the conversations we’re doomed and blessed to keep having with ourselves, our families, our ancestors.
Wanting Radiance is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary writer. It’s hard not to see McElmurray in her story, in her characters—the woman with magic in her hands, shuffling the tarot cards, dealing prophecy, showing us who we were, who we are, who we can become. What’s possible if we let in a little light.
T.J. Sandella is the author of Ways to Beg (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), and is the recipient of two Academy of American Poets Prizes, an Elinor Benedict Prize for Poetry, a William Matthews Poetry Prize, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. His work has appeared in the Best New Poets anthology, New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, the Chattahoochee Review, Poetry Northwest, and Hotel Amerika, among others. You can find him @egregiousteej or tjsandella.com.