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Constance Alexander: Kentucky writer Karen McElmurray ups the ante in ‘Wanting Radiance’

Instead of a stream of literary yada-yada-yada about Karen McElmurray’s, “Wanting Radiance,” what could be better than letting the vibrant language and compelling situations in this magical novel speak for themselves?

Take page one, for instance. Main character Miracelle Loving lets on how her mother, Ruby, refuses to reveal the identity of the girl’s father.

Rather than answer her daughter’s question, Ruby says, “Just tell yourself we come from a long line of tale-tellers and fiddlers.”

Ruby makes it clear that love is not to be trusted, yet Miracelle is in love with love, describing it as, “a highway at night with the car windows down and the radio playing Jim Morrison.”

From a rented trailer in Dauncy, Kentucky, with a sign on the front door that says, “Ruby Loving, Prophetess and Fortune Teller,” mother and teenage daughter endure “the hottest spell on record.”

Miracelle conjures a glamorous future for herself. “I wanted to be a blues singer in a nightclub in a city with a name I couldn’t pronounce” she confesses. “I wanted kohl around my eyes, chocolates from Paris, France.”

Instead, a single shot by an unknown assailant takes Ruby’s life. As she bleeds to death in Miracelle’s arms, the song on the record player pleads, “Hold me, Radiance, honey.”

The rest of the story unfolds like shuffling a deck of cards. The action and relationships move back and forth in time and place, featuring a mix of ghosts, freak show oddities, and fortune-telling sessions gone wrong.

Twenty years after Ruby’s unsolved murder, Miracelle is reading cards for money in a dive in Knoxville, Tennessee. A blond named Beatrice approaches, whose love for a man named Anstor is a story Miracelle has heard before.

“Anstor was like anyone else I’d heard about from women whose fortunes I’d told,” Miarcele muses. “He did this, he did that, he did nothing at all, and still they wanted their Anstors, these women whose lives I told.”

That is the first night that Miracelle hears the voice of her dead mother, “Just when you think I was gone for good,” Ruby says, her voice “like Southern Comfort at the bottom of a glass.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Not long after, Miracelle meets a stranger who works at a museum of freakish memorabilia. When she talks about her fortune-telling he asks, “Don’t you have to figure out where you’ve been…before you can tell anyone where they’re going?”

Ruby’s ghost fills in backstory about her childhood years in Radiance. Her mother insists there is no such thing as love, only God, who “fixed the summer days so hot you couldn’t touch a doorknob on the outside of the house.”

In contrast, Ruby’s father played the fiddle “like it was shady roads and a pond in August. Made her want to go walking in the dark.”

“Wanting Radiance” is filled with people on hapless missions. Miracelle eventually finds her father in the Black Cat Diner. She remembers the scene as if “a spotlight came down out of nowhere or that it was all like a scene in an old movie with a backdrop of mountains and snow, heartfelt music.”

Her father, Russell Wallen, tells his story, reaching back to childhood with a tyrannical father, a part-time preacher. Immersed for his baptism, Russell “heard distant praying and the hymn being sung, ‘Gather at the river.’ He couldn’t breathe, and he struggled hard as the hurt sound changed, became a shape” that became a hole he would remember as “the mouth of God.”

“Wanting Radiance” is brimming with the kind of evocative images and memorable characters that make it potential movie material. Author Karen Sayler McElmurray’s distinguished achievements as a writer of fiction and essays are eclipsed by this stunning novel.

Published by South Limestone Books, an imprint of University Press of Kentucky, “Wanting Radiance” is available through the publisher at www.kentuckypress.com. It is available on Amazon.

Ms. McElmurray won an AWP Award for creative nonfiction for her book Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey and the Orison Award for creative nonfiction for her essay “Blue Glass.” She currently teaches at Gettysburg College and in West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low-Residency MFA program. She formerly taught in Murray State University’s Low Residency MFA program in Creative Writing.

An excerpt from the novel is available at www.karensalyermcelmurray.com.

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