Review: Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky (reviewed by Julie E. Gabrielli)

Radiant Shimmering Light
By Sarah Selecky
368 Pages
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018

Finding one’s way as a unique spiritual being in our conformist, materialist, hyper-busy culture can be exhausting. Lucky for us, Sarah Selecky’s Radiant Shimmering Light is as nourishing as a cup of rooibos tea infused with elderflower essence. Narrated by Lilian Quick, a sensitive artist who sees animal auras, at forty she is making an almost-living as a pet portraitist.

Lilian’s narration unselfconsciously brings the reader right into her psyche. Her artist eyes render descriptions that are fresh and vivid. Everyone is distinct and lovingly observed, such as when Canada’s “second most famous writer,” the marvelous Nana Boondahl, brings her dog to Lilian for a portrait. She “steps into the studio and makes it her own, just by standing in it. Her energy courses around her in waves. I step back to give her more space. She has a very strong presence.”

Lilian’s long-lost cousin, Florence, now goes by Eleven. She’s a spiritual guru with a huge following who sees Lilian’s potential. As a newly hired part of Eleven’s signature program, The Ascendency (described as a three-month training seminar on leadership, spiritual awakening, and marketing), Lilian moves from bitter-cold Toronto to slightly less frigid New York to become her “best self.”

The tone of Selecky’s novel is light-hearted, poking fun at consumerized spirituality, and in particular, the women’s empowerment industry. The humor is gently ironic, tinged with the absurd. The clever names of businesses, programs, and products are echoes from one’s own path as a seeker. Who can resist a smile at Inspo-preneurship, Potency Circle, Teleritual, WhaleMind, SoulCore, Whitespace, Manifested Denim, and Conscious Cupcakery?

“These are special cupcakes, my loves . . . from the Conscious Cupcakery. This bakery is owned by an Ascendency grad named Winnie Prudhomme. Winnie stores her special gluten-free flour blend in a sacred room, where it is infused with the positive intentions of meditating monks. She bakes the cupcakes to the sounds of daily prayer chants from a Tibetan monastery.”

Anyone who has spent time reading blogs or books, clicking e-newsletter links, attending live events, listening to podcasts, dreaming over info products, or following home-study courses will recognize the hard-sell promises of instant enlightenment. Selecky alchemizes versions of Byron Katie’s Turn-Around and Mama Gena’s Swamping into Eleven’s practices of Mirroring and Compost Heaving. Eleven herself is a delicious composite of Katie and Gena with people like Baeth Davis, Kendall Summerhawk, Lissa Rankin, or anyone else from one’s own history with internet personalities.

Selecky’s fresh take on mysterious, magical phenomena like auras goes well beyond the self-indulgent appropriations of New Age blather. Her deceptively simple language evokes synaesthetic, transcendent experiences.

“The air shimmers, prismatic. There is so much animal life in this forest, it’s hard to filter their auras into single colors. . . . Nothing but invisible color and silent music. It’s everywhere. It’s inside of me and outside of me. I’m breathing it, and it’s breathing me.

Selecky invites the reader to consider the difference between intimacy and interaction. The constant demand of social media to split consciousness is nicely contrasted with the teachings of the various spiritual gurus to “be here now.” And yet they rely on the same technologies of distraction to sell us into their programs, an irony that Selecky exploits with admirable deftness.

It’s clear that Eleven is sincere when she says, “feminine leadership is the change that the whole world needs to see.” This difference shows up in the morning check-in (called Insight), in characters taking time for self-care, in a consciously beautiful workplace, and in their choices of food and drink (usually vegan).

Still, one wonders about the laughably, perhaps intentionally, short time-frame of the Ascendency program—three months to become enlightened? Despite a few glimpses of the program’s weekends in New York, Portland, and Oahu, plus a couple of Telerituals in between, there is little detail on what the enrollees are actually working on, other than setting up new websites with affiliate pages to sell Eleven’s merchandise and programs. One wonders if the whole thing is little more than a way for Eleven to enroll more and more salespeople to feed her coffers—while earning money themselves! Because women share their bounty!

Radiant Shimmering Light works well as a coming-of-age tale. When we first meet Lilian, she is self-absorbed and awkward, yet also quirky and intriguing enough to suspend judgment. Selecky’s compassion for her is infectious. Later on, when Lilian is debilitated by her newly emerging powers, she takes a time-out and learns to work with them as her unique genius. The climax pushes Lilian onstage at a big Ascendency event, as her mentor/cousin Eleven has gone AWOL. The ending leaves some things unresolved, but it’s satisfying to experience Lilian’s moment in the sun.-Julie E. Gabrielli

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