The Light a Body Radiates by Ethel Whitty

At fifty-eight pages into The Light a Body Radiates by Ethel Whitty (2018, Caitlin Press), Eileen Macpherson’s grandmother tells her:

“If you’re a storyteller, it’s your job to make it a story that wants to be told. Where we come from, the one who always keeps the stories is the granddaughter.” Then she murmured, “You can be that granddaughter to me.” In response to the confusion she read on my face, she continued in a less conspiratorial tone, “Don’t worry, they’ll be good stories.”

The Light a Body Radiates comprises a good story in its 280+ pages. Told from the point of view of Eileen (who is only eight when the book opens) it traverses the decades from the Fifties to the Eighties. At the outset, the festering tension between Francis, the oldest son and his father Neil hits the breaking point and Francis soon leaves his Cape Breton home, eventually ending up in Toronto. This rupture is devastating to Eileen, who adores Francis and doesn’t understand the rift that sent him away and wonders if he’ll ever come back. Meanwhile, life goes on for the MacPherson family, and new stories are formed and the old ones fill in the gaps for the maturing Eileen.

In the next days and weeks, I tried to be discerning, putting the stories that family members told me together with conversations overheard and making up some pieces that were missing. All the pieces that I’d stored in the nooks and crannies were pulled from their places and laid out before me and I’d hoped the puzzle would show it’s picture and a larger story would emerge.

It is when she finishes school that she, too wants to leave home, if only for the summer. Francis, who by this time has a job as a late-night DJ on a Toronto radio station, says she can come and visit him in Toronto. It is at this point that I, like Eileen felt some relief from the stifling MacPherson household. I hoped with her that Toronto would be the turning point of the book. And so it was, however not in the direction or way that I assumed it would go. The Toronto of the late sixties and early seventies (and particularly the Yorkville hippie scene) is an eye-opener for Eileen who has never been to such a large city. She gets a job as a waitress and soon fits right into the counter-culture scene in downtown Toronto.

It was at this juncture that I started to lose enthusiasm in the book, and in Eileen’s character in particular. If I cannot identify with the main character, I find it difficult to feign interest in a book. There is a certain vagueness to her character (most of the characters, actually) and to the story as well; it’s very difficult to explain, but by the final few pages I had had enough of Eileen and her annoying boyfriend Findlay, enough of the ongoing family issues, and just skipped to the end. I think Francis’ point of view would have made a better story or even the younger sister Iona, the jazz singer. At any rate, those are my thoughts and someone else may decipher things differently. For another take on The Light a Body Radiates, consider author Carol Bruneau‘s comment:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#0F155E” class=”” size=””]”A haunting story whose powerful, lilting notes rise and echo far beyond its pages.”[/perfectpullquote]

So I encourage you to read The Light a Body Radiates to see if you enjoy it as much as Ms. Bruneau did. I truly hope you do!

The Light a Body Radiates by Ethel Whitty
Caitlin Press

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James M. Fisher is the Founding Editor of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. He works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane, their tabby cat Eddie, and Buster the Red Merle Border Collie.