Book review: Bright Shining, Julia Baird

A companion piece to her earlier book, 'Phosphorescence', 'Bright Shining' explores the quality of grace.
Bright Shining. Image is a colour headshot of a smiling woman with shoulder length brown hair and an open necked white blouse. On the right is a yellow and orange abstract book cover.

In 2020, in the heart of the pandemic, Julia Baird released her book with exquisite timing. Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder and Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark is a beautiful and readable cross-section of memoir, philosophy and science. Bright Shining: How Grace Changes Everything is her follow-up. While less successful than its predecessor, Bright Shining is still a pleasant companion for the 2023 summer. 

Bright Shining again straddles memoir, philosophy and science. Baird quotes from a wide range of sources, referencing with breathless intensity. An early prelude to a section on acts of observance references Rebecca Solnit, George Orwell, Ted Lasso and her own experience inside a Salvation Army hall – all in three pages. The result is sometimes dizzying.

It is difficult not to compare Bright Shining to Phosphorescence directly. Publisher HarperCollins has given both books the same beautiful hardcover treatment. Indeed, the new book makes an ideal Christmas gift for even the most casual reader. In fact, Baird’s speed of references in Bright Shining suggests a casual reader is possibly best. The chapters are short and diverse, overall comforting and inspiring. Each one holds enough ideas that a single chapter can fuel a day’s meditations.

The breeziness verges on superficiality for some sections, however. The most significant part of the book, titled ‘Our Sins’, focuses on grace in the world of restorative justice, colonial history and the Stolen Generations. Here, Baird’s skills as a journalist and contemporary philosopher shine through as she explores the intricacy of her subjects with care and serious thought, but it is a complex territory to navigate in such a limited time, and she quickly moves on. There is enough material in these few chapters to generate a whole other book. The reader may feel short-changed.

The topic of grace is more specific and opaque than in Phosphorescence, which was neatly unified in Baird’s use of bioluminescence as a metaphor for light in darkness. In her introduction, Baird attempts to define grace, skirting through Christianity, Richard Rohr, Mary Oliver, Helen Garner, Cormac McCarthy and others. She lands with a three-tier definition. Grace is tied to a sense of aliveness, is something undeserved and is the ability to see good in each other. The book’s title comes from the lyrics of ‘Amazing Grace’ and Baird opens the book with a simple simile: ‘grace is like the sun’. 

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These definitions offer a loose grasp of the topic, influencing the book’s overall tone. It feels as if you’re sitting across from a friend, sharing wine. It is entirely pleasant, but lacks the true staying power of Baird’s previous work. At its worst, sections can strike as underdeveloped blog posts. At its best, Baird taps into something profound, expressing a contemporary philosophy that shines especially bright. 

Bright Shining, Julia Baird
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 9781460760253
Format: Trade hardback
Pages: 320 pp
Release Date: November 2023
RRP: $34.99

David Burton is a writer from Meanjin, Brisbane. David also works as a playwright, director and author. He is the playwright of over 30 professionally produced plays. He holds a Doctorate in the Creative Industries.