This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers by Jeff Sharlet. W.W. Norton & Company, 2020. 320 pages. $25.
This Brilliant Darkness by Jeff Sharlet is subtitled “a book of strangers”. While readers might never meet the subjects of his stories and Instagram photos, through reading this beautifully empathetic book, they might feel a little more connected to humanity as a whole.
The work in This Brilliant Darkness was made between two heart attacks, the first happening to Jeff Sharlet’s father, and the second his own. Sharlet writes that after his father’s heart attack, he began suffering from insomnia and decided to start photographing the people and things he saw when he took late night drives. This Brilliant Darkness also includes snapshots from reporting assignments Sharlet went on in Los Angeles, Narobi, and Moscow. Whether reporting on a larger story or offering a smaller slice of life, Sharlet’s reporting is brimming with empathy and genuine interest in the subjects.
The subjects in This Brilliant Darkness are varied, ranging from night shift workers, people living on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, the LGBTQ+ community in Moscow, an unforgettable woman who lives in a hotel room with her beloved plant, and many other people Sharlet met and photographed. Most profiles are only a few sentences long, but some last many pages. One of the most unforgettable stories comes when Sharlet spends time on Los Angeles’ Skid Row and reports on the death of Charly Keunang at the hands of the police.
Charly Keunang was born in Cameroon, and immigrated to Hollywood in 1999 in hopes of becoming an actor. He attended acting classes, but when the cost became too much, attempted to rob a bank. Charly spent fourteen years incarcerated, ten of those years in a prison psychiatric ward. He eventually moved to Skid Row after his attempts to get deported back to Cameroon failed. On March 1, 2015, an unarmed Charly was tased and fatally shot six times by police. Sharlet carefully recounts the events surrounding Keunang’s life and death, after reviewing bystander video, police reports, and learning about Keunang’s past through conversations with his sister, who immigrated to Boston in hopes of finding her brother. This story is full of tragedy, but it does the important work of telling the story of someone who would have likely gone unnoticed by mainstream society, not chastising or excusing his crimes or drug use, but showcasing his humanity.
The content in This Brilliant Darkness is not comforting in the sense that there are inspirational stories. There is pain in many of the stories Sharlet covers. It is hard to not feel empathy while reading some of the profiles. But Sharlet does not approach his subjects from a sense of pity. This Brilliant Darkness shows the messy reality of life in all its imperfections, and readers will likely find comfort in hearing other people’s stories.
Elizabeth Weislak is the Youth Services Coordinator for Alamance County Public Libraries. She may be reached at email@example.com