This is a difficult review to write. I need to preface by saying, I don’t know much, if anything about Kabbalah. And while I know some of the basic tenets of Judaism, again, this is not a subject I am well versed in.
I preface my review with that disclaimer simply because I am not sure if some of what confused me in this novel was this lack of knowledge. It is entirely possible that a lot of my misunderstanding is a result of this. This review may contain spoilers.
Light Radiance Splendor is a story about the Divine Shekinah tasking a family of Kabbalists with a sacred mission. Beginning with Jaakov, a young rebbe living in a shtetl in Poland in the early 1900’s.
The mission is to decode a scared manuscript beginning with Jaakov. His life’s work is focused on this task, though he isn’t given much to go off of, except the initial decoding notes from his mentor and the previous mission keeper.
His obstacle in completing his task, is being able to find peace and forgiveness in his heart. The person he needs to find this with, is the man who raped his daughter and subsequently fathered his grandson. It is only when he is able to forgive these crimes, along with later attempts at kidnapping and other vague misdeeds, that Jaakov can fulfill his duties.
When his contribution is completed, the work is passed to his grandson, Benjamin. Benjamin faces his own struggles and challenges in his journey as mission keeper. Although his are layered on many levels. Having to endure the cruelty of the Third Reich, from the very beginning is terrifying and heartbreaking on so many levels. Rather than face a crime committed against one person, he witnessed his entire people segregated, persecuted, tortured and in many cases, executed. Simply for existing.
All of that would be heavy and difficult, but his specific struggle is forgiving a Nazi Officer who helped him survive and ultimately saved him, although for his own purposes. Again, it is only when he lets go and allows forgiveness into his heart that he is able to complete his piece and pass the manuscript on to his own son, the third and final mission keeper, Raphael.
Raphael has grown up in Jerusalem. Born in the war, his father not even knowing he existed, Jerusalem was supposed to be a life of peace. But political turmoil divided the Palestinian people and the Jewish people, increasing the tensions until they turned violent. When the son of his close friend turns radical and kills Raphael’s son, he cannot fathom forgiveness.
The main message of this novel is the universal nature of love and the importance of forgiveness. I don’t know if the quotes given by the Divine are tenets of Kabbalah, or if this how the author is trying to frame a general belief to the reader. Essentially, we all come from one people, one belief, one spiritual plane and love heals what hate divides. This is an extreme paraphrasing.
While I appreciate what message the novel was attempting to convey, it did come across, to me, as preachy. I felt as if I was in a religious class being told certain doctrine rather than reading a novel.
I also felt that the author chose to tackle some seriously heavy and deep issues. Rape, war, genocide, hatred, racism, terrorism, extremism. These are topics that libraries have been filled with. They are incredibly complex and difficult, and I just didn’t feel that she did a good job really exploring how heavy they can be. At least not in terms of forgiveness.
Chyten spent a lot of time immersing us in the horror of these topics, but when the time came for forgiveness, the only one I really understood was Raphael. Page after page of suffering and at times outright evil, and very little time was spent on the journey towards how they landed in the capacity to forgive. Jaakov and Benjamin felt forced and unrealistic. It would take someone with an extremely pure heart to reach that level within a conversation, and obviously these men spent lifetimes struggling with forgiveness. It didn’t ring true.
I didn’t understand the manuscript piece. It was given to Jaakov, but was already partially decoded, or he had a decoded key from the first mission keeper? I’m unclear, but then Zeff (the rapist) comes seeking forgiveness so he doesn’t carry debt to the afterlife (um, what?) and decodes the manuscript as payment. But then Benjamin and Raphael work on decoding the manuscript? Why, if it has already been decoded?
Benjamin spent significant time in Auschwitz, and we only hear about him working on the manuscript at the very end. Raphael also spends little time with it. I didn’t understand this piece of the novel. It felt like a way to keep the Divine in it, which felt like pushing the religion, rather than taking a more neutral tone. I could be wrong, but it was very confusing.
Finally, I didn’t understand the ending. For all the trauma I was inflicted with, the ending felt unfulfilling. The manuscript “served it’s purpose”?! I’m not sure I understood the purpose.
For me, this was a miss. I don’t think I understood some of the tenets of the religion for the plot to make complete sense. The book is described as spiritual not religious, so I did feel that was a touch misleading. I think that the author tried to fit too much into the book, and it felt stretched thin. For the heaviness of the subject matter, it needed a much deeper examination. Too much time was spent on the horror, and not enough on the journey back.
Overall, the message of love and forgiveness is a good one, but I didn’t think the author did enough to convey the difficult journey to get from tragedy to forgiveness, if you take faith out of the equation. If normal people don’t have the Divine guiding them, how would they reach these same conclusions?
If religious tones appeal to you, this book may make more sense, and be more appealing.
Thank you BookSparks and She Writes Press for giving me this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.