Review: How to Be Luminous by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

Review: How to Be Luminous by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

‘When seventeen-year-old Minnie Sloe’s mother disappears, so does her ability to see color. How can young artist Minnie create when all she sees is black-and-white?

Middle child Minnie and her two sisters have always been able to get through anything together: growing up without fathers, living the eccentric artist lifestyle, and riding out their mother’s mental highs and lows. But when they lose their mother, Minnie wonders if she could lose everything: her family, her future, her first love… and maybe even her mind.’

How to be Luminous is a difficult read, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, for it’s a sensitively and well-written book, and I think if it were an easy read it wouldn’t have the impact that it does. That it is a novel that is not always comfortable reading means it is effective in what it means to convey, the narrative one that primarily deals with mental illness via its main protagonist and those in her life, and that it can hit a little too close on more than one occasion means that there are characters with which readers can identify and who are portrayed in a manner that encourages empathy.

One of three sisters, Minnie finds that her ability to see colour vanishes when her mother disappears, and this is only one of many things that makes her doubt whether she isn’t losing her mind as she tries to work through the grief and uncertainty that losing the only parental figure in her life brings her. Without an explanation and without closure, Minnie is left to wonder whether her mother has simply had enough and left her and her siblings to their own devices, or whether her mental illness has driven her to it – or something worse. With the loss of colour come doubts about her own mental state, and while she very clearly suffers from depression in the face of her loss, she also starts to worry that her mother’s highs and lows of what is described akin to being bi-polar is something necessary to create the works of art that she wishes to, and whether her mother’s mental state inevitably means she will suffer the same. In dealing with her grief, she becomes convinced that she must be losing her mind, for she is convinced that she sees her more than once, while also attempting to bring her back to her and seek guidance by imagining and immersing herself in memories of what they used to do. Anyone who has lost someone they care about will surely recognise and empathise with how Minnie feels, and that the stages she goes through and the coping mechanisms she tries to employ are so identifiable is one of the things that can make How to be Luminous an upsetting read for all the right reasons.

The one feature of the novel that I wasn’t sure was entirely necessary was the love triangle. At its heart, the story is about Minnie dealing with the loss of her mother and struggling to live with the building evidence that she is not going to reappear, whether because she has abandoned her or because her bi-polar has led to her taking her own life, and I found the romantic elements more of a distraction than anything. There are some lovely moments between Minnie and Felix, don’t get me wrong, and giving her someone who has experienced the same loss that she is attempting to cope with is an effective facet of the story – I just don’t feel that it being a romantic connection was entirely in keeping with the rest of the story.

One of the pieces of the story’s structure that I enjoyed the most was the naming of colours that have been lost and what Minnie associates them with. These little sections are included between chapters and are beautiful in their insight and effective in bringing home some of the narrative features of the previous chapter(s).

How to be Luminous is out now from Pan Macmillan! I would like to thank the publisher for sending me a copy of this hard-hitting novel for review.

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