Sundress Reads: Review of Wanting Radiance

“I had to say goodbye to who I’d always been. I drove faster, rolled the window down and hung my head out and yelled it as loud as I could. ‘Miracelle Loving!’ I felt my name arc in the wind and slam back against the windshield, breaking into pieces as I drove on.”

Passages like this frame the way Miracelle Loving reaches out into the world in the novel Wanting Radiance by Karen Salyer McElmurray (South Limestone, 2020). Sinking deep into asphalt roads and long-forgotten, liminal spaces, Wanting Radiance presents the identities and secrets of its characters not as permanent fixtures, but as hollow spaces always wanting something more—a want that is tied to the past perhaps more than it rests in the future.

In introducing main character Miracelle, McElmurray constructs a woman with confidence in her own transience. A tarot reader’s daughter, Miracelle parks her life near weekly rented motels and neon-lighted bars, using a card deck to read off futures that suit the wishes of lonely women and hungry men.

Haunted by the mystery of her mother’s death in Dauncy, Kentucky, unaware of her own father’s name, displaced from her birthplace, and desperately trying to grasp the concept of love, Miracelle is a wanderer who finds permanence only in her ability to drift. However, when the voice of her deceased mother, Ruby Loving, suddenly wedges its way into Miracelle’s mind, it encourages Miracelle to find the past she has never known. Following news clippings from an odd wonders museum known as Willy’s Wonderama, Miracelle decides she cannot possibly know who she is meant to be—or who and how she is supposed to love—until she discovers everything her mother used to be.

Alongside the present, first-person perspective of Miracelle Loving, McElmurray intricately interweaves the histories of Miracelle’s mother Ruby, her father Russell Wallen, and Russell’s wife Della Branham through a third-person perspective. As the truth of Miracelle’s birth in the small town of Radiance comes to light, so too do different textures of wanting—deep, emotional desires for pre-envisioned futures—haunt each character Miracelle meets.

 While describing Miracelle’s migratory movements through “smaller and smaller towns” filled with “Fresh Eggs, Jesus, One Way or No Way” signs and gravel roads eaten by dirt, McElmurray showcases the wants of each character as synonymous to the folds of mountainside towns that have decomposed under capitalist pressure, or fleeted into the skittishness of rear-view mirrors. While Miracelle’s mother wants Russell’s love, a love she finds as “water draining between my fingers”, Russell transforms love into a thing that owns and excavates, until his form of want becomes a thing which “reached inside the mountains and pulled out their hearts.”

McElmurray transforms the ideas of want and love within the character of Della Wallen, who wants a marriage with Russell in the way she can fix a car with warm, slick oil between her fingers, a love that is “the making and doing and seeing it come alive, the work of their hands.” While their definitions of love and want clash inside a depleted mountainside, Russell, Della, and Ruby lend Miracelle Loving the challenging task of finding a name for herself, rather than one that she can weld together from her past.

While realizing the truth behind her mother’s death—and all the desires which lead up to it—Miracelle speaks throughout the novel of “would” and “could.” Many sentences transition into the conditional tense throughout the novel, speaking to the way Miracelle continually works to foretell her future in a way that aligns with the lines of her past—lines which seem to rigidly anchor her body to her family history and the contours of the earth she travels through. Many times, Miracelle revises the trajectory of her future when reading her palms, falling on statements like, “By autumn, I could be standing in a doorway at night watching lightning bugs with a person I had yet to meet” or “Russell Wallen took hold of my hands, and we swung each other round and round. It could have been,” or, “I’d like to say I found just the right potion made of lavender and thyme and mystery, one to make all the world right.” However, only after finding the past, only after listening to the last echoes of her mother’s voice—“you know what to do”— does Miracelle find a new history for her name Miracelle Loving—an acceptance not based on her past, but based on something Wanting Radiance finds at its end: a feeling of present, steady reconciliation that, while not entirely full, still leaves enough space to pull one’s soul into something present and new.

While Miracelle succeeds in discovering her family history, she also realizes that it is not this history which affects the way which she now pursues her own life— her own form of loving. She concludes herself, “Miracelle Loving. My whole history was in that name. Loving I’d never wanted, but searched for like it was the last thing I’d ever find. And here I was, back from searching for the Holy Grail of family and I’d filled in a blank or two or three inside myself, all right, but a hundred more seemed to follow.” In this statement, Miracelle recognizes a new form of journey, one only she can follow; she finds freedom in traversing bravely through blank spaces that have never been defined by her past—spaces available for Miracelle to sculpt herself. Wanting Radiance illustrates a love in Miracelle Loving that arises not from grappling for a specific future, or returning to an unclear past, but instead from simply letting her soul step outside all of the seamed lines (the lines of family history and roadmaps and skin) to become something she can look at deep inside, and define as her own.

Wanting Radiance is available at South Limestone, an imprint of The University Press of Kentucky


Hannah Olsson holds a double BA in Cinema and Creative Writing English from the University of Iowa. During her time in Iowa, Hannah was the president of The Translate Iowa Project and its publication boundless, a magazine devoted to publishing translated poetry, drama, and prose. Her work, both in English and Swedish, has been featured in boundless, earthwords magazine, InkLit Mag, and the University of Iowa’s Ten-Minute Play Festival, among others.

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