Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 28, 2014

To Light Attained (2008), by Morris Lurie

To Light Attained To Light Attained is an emotionally draining book to read, but it’s also a valuable book to read.

The Twenty-Seventh African Hippo RaceAccording to Wikipedia Morris Lurie is an author of comic novels and short stories, but he doesn’t have a high profile as an Australian author.  He received the Patrick White Award in 2006,  awarded to a writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has not received much recognition.   Truth be told, I knew his work only through for that wonderful children’s book, The Twenty-Seventh African Hippopotamus Race.  I’ve read that to almost every class I’ve ever had, and it’s one of the best-loved stories I know.

So reading To Light Attained was a revelation.  It makes harsh demands on the reader, and at times it is so emotionally charged that one wants to put the book aside.  In searing poetic language, the book charts a father’s grief after the suicide of his daughter.  There is no support from a loving wife because his marriage has failed, and his career as a writer is in limbo because the words won’t come.  The book portrays a man in extremis as it is rarely seen in fiction.

Except that it’s not quite fiction.  In an interview with Ramona Koval, Lurie readily admits that To Light Attained is autobiographical, and that for a variety of different reasons, its publication was delayed for many years.

I wrote this book…I have to call it a novel because that’s the only way I could get round to writing it. Maybe there are other reasons but I called it a novel and I gave myself a different name and I put it in a certain grammatical stance or text, and I wrote it fairly soon after my daughter took her life. Then there was a gap of 14 years, and I might say that this is not the first time I’ve had to wait for a book to come out.

My guess is that the author renaming himself as Herschel Himmelman enabled some kind of distancing, but the book seems incredibly intimate.  He has had to face death before – his mother’s, his father’s, his friend’s, but the death of a child is an upset in the natural order of things.  Children should outlive their parents.

How do you write about a child who died?  You can tell me? You have some words for me? Some tactic you can teach? Some strategy of proper and correct formulation you can advise?  A child who said enough. A child who finished. A child who said, in our most unsayable way, this child, no more.

In fragments laced into his everyday life, driving to the Botanic Gardens through the familiar streets of Melbourne and running The Tan, Himmelman’s memories emerge.  He remembers his daughter’s childhood, (ballet lessons, going endlessly to the inane movies she loves, trips to the snow and the Show).  He shares the pain of his marriage breakup:

The marriage vanishes. Himmelmann’s marriage. One minute it’s there and the next minute it’s not. Disappeared. Finished.  Over and done. Gone. The fat kid jumps off the see-saw, the thin kid comes down with a bump. There are worse metaphors.  Eighteen years, two children included, it’s still a see-saw came down with a crash. Where the important thing, says Himmelmann’s brother, Himmelmann’s rarely in touch by Himmelmann now phoned distant younger brother, is not to let the kids feel they’re in any way to blame.  Spend time with them, Hersch! Before it’s too late! Do it now! Taken them on a holiday! Get close!

I love that kind of advice, don’t you?

Where the tinkle of razoo, full brash brass or otherwise, was offered in alleviation?

Go in peace, good brother. (p. 69)

The reader witnesses Himmelman’s attempt to write his daughter’s life chronologically and coherently, it’s impossible.  As she grows older her life becomes messier: she starts things (overseas trips, university, jobs) but always they fail her needs.  She disappears, she returns.  He reacts as parents do, with love, hope, impotent rage, incomprehension, and as we make our way across the pages, we dread coming to the end because we know what has happened to her life.  She has made her decision and her father must live with that for the rest of his life.

Liam Davidson reviewed it for The Australian.

Author: Morris Lurie
Title: To Light Attained
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2008
ISBN: 9781876462642
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: To Light Attained
Or direct from Hybrid Publishers


  1. Thanks
    I sold the 27th as a hardback for Billy Collins in the 70’s
    Also knew Morris’s brother Norm

    Sent from my iPad


    • Well, generations of schoolkids owe you too!


  2. And did you find any truth in Liam Davidson’s assertion that the prose style sometimes “obfuscates, confuses and smacks of indulgence rather than virtuosity” ?
    A part of me would like to read ‘To Light Attained’, another part tells me it might just be too sad.
    I did once read Antonella Gambotto’s (now Gambotto-Burke) ‘The Eclipse: a memoir of suicide’. It is a beautiful book but also a tough read.


    • LOL Far be it from me to argue with a reviewer of Liam Davidson’s stature …
      I thought that comment was bizarre.
      If an author’s going to depict how grief bleeds through into rational thought and everyday activities, of course the text will be a bit confusing. But experienced readers read through the confusion and make sense of it, and in so doing, learn something about empathy. David Vann is another author who treads in these treacherous waters. I think the reader just needs to get the timing right with reading books like this, and not tackle them when feeling depressed.


  3. Glad you got to read this, even though as you say it’s harrowing at times. But don’t we read to be touched, moved?
    Morris will have another book out later this year, ‘Hergesheimer in the Present Tense’, much more lighthearted but still close to the author’s personal experiences.


    • Hello Anna, I love his titles! Is he speaking at the Jewish Literary Festival?


  4. Morris should be reading on Monday afternoon but he hasn’t been well, not sure.


    • Alas, I’m at work on Monday, but I’ve got tickets for sessions on Sunday:)


  5. […] son, and his daughter died.  (This last, sadly, is an autobiographical element in the book.  See my review of To Light Attained.)  The girlfriend Valerie shocks him sometimes with her casual attitude to […]


  6. […] went on to write numerous other novels (see Wikipedia), two of which I have reviewed on this blog: To Light Attained (Hybrid Publishers, 2008) and Hergesheimer in the Present Tense (Hyrbid Publishers, […]


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