Every once in a while, I read a book that, when finished, leaves me content, happy and wrapped in a warm cocoon of happiness. Sieni A.M.’s debut novel, Illumine Her, was just this kind of book. Capturing me from the very first pages, it took me on a wonderful journey to Samoa, where Alana Vilo has returned to after studying abroad for three years. Armed with a brand new nursing degree, she starts working at the local hospital, the recipient of a large donation from one Chase Malek. While away for college, Alana’s beloved father passed away; she was able to tuck the pain away until Chase entered her life. Captivated by this man who is clearly hiding something, Alana has to break down the various walls her father’s death prompted her to put up.
Illumine Her is categorised as a paranormal romance; however, it is much more than that. Just like with another book I just finished reading (Ripley Patton’s Ghost Hand), the paranormal aspect of the story was one of the many accessories that served to convey Alana’s very human story.
I have never been to Samoa, nor do I know much, quite unfortunately, about this island nation; however, Sieni’s deft storytelling ensured that this lack of knowledge did in no wise impair my ability to appreciate the story. From the detailed descriptions of breathtaking vistas to the gentle pointers explaining the context within which characters were acting in certain ways, the author made sure to immerse her readers in the story. I must say that I felt like I gained a lot of weight just reading the descriptions of Samoan food!
The strength of the author in describing so vividly a place I have never been before is also reflected in the pace of the story and the way she immerses us in Alana’s life. Sieni takes the time to set the story from the very first pages, beginning with Alana packing up her college life to return home. It might seem like boring, unnecessary fluff; I must confess, sometimes, it is, as these scenes often make the beginning of a story long and tedious. But in the case of Illumine Her, it was so well written that the pages easily turned. Furthermore, the story is greatly enriched through the descriptions the author includes throughout, making every page well worth reading.
But the one thing that really made me love this book the most is the care given to developing the concepts at its core. Illumine Her is a love story, but not only one between a man and a woman. It is also a love story between a daughter and her father, between a girl and her family, both immediate and extended, and, most importantly, between a woman and her brothers and sisters around the world. Sieni deftly uses conversations between Alana and various supporting characters to delve into these topics in a way that intrigued me rather than feel like I was being lectured. These conversations stayed with me long after I finished, allowing me to reflect on the topics of love and grief, and family and community life.
This book was both a lovely escape into the beautiful island of Samoa, as well as a story that made me reflect on relationships, grief, family and our responsibilities towards ourselves, our families and our communities. This also contributed to making Alana and Chase’s love story not just beautifully sweet, but also satisfyingly rich. The two make a strong, beautiful couple, the kind of long-term relationship one wants to be in. That the weight of the concepts did not burden Sieni’s storytelling demonstrated the capacity of this author.
A deep, reflective, well-paced love story, Illumine Her is a strong beginning for debut author Sieni A.M., and I really looking forward to reading more from her.