“Wanting Radiance,” by Karen Salyer McElmurray

Karen Salyer McElmurray

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

The pages of Wanting Radiance, a luscious literary novel by Karen Salyer McElmurray, are haunted by characters yearning for love—or something else they can’t quite name. As Ruby Loving says, she is “hungry and what she wanted was a miracle to fill her up.” Her daughter Miracelle thinks the emptiness might be spiritual: “What I wanted . . . was something that caught hold of me, went inside me, into my bones and blood and breathing.” The emptiness, the essential loneliness of all the characters, is palpable and painful. They yearn for radiance, for warmth they can’t find.

The story moves back in forth in time, tantalizing readers with glimpses of Ruby’s daughter Miracelle in the 1990’s, and then shifting to Ruby in the 1950s and 1960s. The narration is also enriched by the viewpoints of Della and Russell Wallen.

Throughout Miracelle’s childhood, Ruby Loving drags her from town to town, living in cheap motels or rented rooms. Miracelle wants to know who her father is and why he abandoned them, who her people are, where they come from. Who, she wonders, are we? Her mother never answers. When Miracelle is fifteen, her mother is murdered. Afterward, Miracelle drifts from town to town alone, sloughing off anyone who might become too close. Like her mother before her, Miracelle reads palms and tells fortunes with tarot cards in dive bars, working odd jobs to get by and living in cheap motels.

In Knoxville, Miracelle takes a job with Willy’s Wonderama, a tourist attraction similar to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. There she meets Cody Black, he of the luscious tattooed body, the first man not easily deterred by her evasions. Cody, she admits, is “a good, good man who saw right through [Miracelle] and might still like what he saw.” He says she is “Like a word left out of some sentence.” He says, “When I look at you, I see the places you want and can’t reach.” Cody takes her to a tattoo parlor where she gets her own tattoo: “a picture of a woman looking for home.”

As she sorts through people’s letters describing freak occurrences that might be worthy of including in Willy’s Wonderama, Miracelle comes across a reference to the town of Radiance. It sparks an early memory of the town and a fragment of a song she remembers and a fiddle player she thinks might have been her father. She sets off to find Radiance, her father, and maybe even her mother’s murderer.

Miracelle is not the only one with unsated hungers. Both Ruby and Della yearn for Russell to open his heart and fold them in. They are “Two women mourning, the both of them, hearts full of love and nowhere to give it.” And Russell? He wants to be the foreman, the boss, the owner of a company. Russell makes his money by timbering, accused by one landowner of “taking the world apart.” Russell doesn’t regret the destruction. He believes change is the only way to make a buck and get ahead:

The trees came down. The earth opened up. Inside the earth, well, that wasn’t his business, the seams and guts and hard insides of the land, the coal. He was helping it along, all of it, and he couldn’t help who it hurt. Things were like that. Hurting. A tree had the scent of sap, and it sighed when you took it down, and then you moved on to the next.

After working his way up to ownership of a mill, the bottom falls out of his business. His wife says he “loved power but watched what he had sift through his fingers.” He is like “cold houses in winter, houses that can’t stay warm.”

Each of the four main characters ache with a loneliness that perhaps no other human can ever fill. Miracelle has the keen insight that maybe people want “that space between. Between now and then, between wanting and having, between what you wanted so much it tasted bittersweet.”

But ultimately, it wasn’t these lonely and lost characters that drew me back into this enchanting novel for a second read. It was the gorgeous language: words perfectly chosen, rhythmically arranged. McElmurray piles image after radiant image, full of heat and light and smoky mystery. Wanting Radiance is sure to sweep you under its under its dark spell, too.

Karen Salyer 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 has had other essays recognized as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays, while her essays “Speaking Freely and “Attics” were nominated for Pushcart Awards. She currently teaches at Gettysburg College and in West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low-Residency MFA program. Wanting Radiance is her third novel. She is also the author of Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven and The Motel of the Stars.

Click here to purchase this book:


  1. Thank you for this lovely review–my copy is on hold at the library! Just FYI: McElmurray has written two other novels, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven (1999) and The Motel of the Stars (2008).

Leave a Reply