As a warning right off the bat: if you’re looking for a book that primarily focuses on lesbian relationships, this is not the book for you. While both of our protagonists end up being queer, the plot of the novel doesn’t really revolve around love interests at all. And in a way, that’s a lovely thing, that one’s queerness can simply be a minor detail, that it doesn’t have to factor in as a “conflict” in a story whatsoever.
The story of Radiant Days is rather about art. And the quirkiness factor is that the two protagonists live centuries apart: one is Merle, an art school drop out living in Washington, DC in the late 1970s; the other is Arthur, a poor poet trying to run away from home in the French countryside in the late 1800s, right as Paris is about to be besieged by Prussia. Interestingly, Merle’s story is told in first person, while Arthur’s is from the third person; we accordingly feel closer to the emotions of Merle, but Arthur is the character based on a real historical figure: Arthur Rimbaud, a famous poet whose work has influenced scores of modern musicians.
At the beginning of the book, Merle’s muse is her former art teacher who she’s also having an affair with, Clea, a selfish married woman who uses Merle and her art. It’s hard to know how much Clea truly cares for Merle, or how much Merle truly cares about her, but there is an artistic bond that ties them together–all of Merle’s drawings, on paper and covering the walls of her room, are of Clea. That is, until she starts tagging her signature “Radiant Days” graffiti mark around DC. It’s when she’s suddenly lost everything except for a can of spray paint that she runs into an old man fishing in a canal, who eventually leads her to Arthur Rimbaud.
While most of Radiant Days reads as realistic fiction, the heart of the story itself is fantasy, as Arthur and Merle’s worlds are able to somehow shift time and meld together for brief but fantastic moments, one transported into the life of the other, and eventually, vice versa. While these shared moments altogether only count for hours of each of their long lives, they make lasting, deep impressions on each other. It would be interesting to debate with others who have read the novel about how exactly to classify the relationship between Arthur and Merle. I personally didn’t feel that it was sexual, or even romantic, in any sort of a way, but was rather a more unexplainable bond even deeper than that, or a different sort of love, bridged by art.
I first heard of this novel on Malinda Lo’s recommendation, and while I normally love books she recommends, it took me a long time to get through this one. Which almost feels embarrassing, as it’s by no means a very long book, and I am a huge fan of art, and stories about art in all shapes and forms. I also love history, and I love DC, and I love relationships that don’t fit into qualitative boxes–so by all counts, this seemed like it should be a winner for me. But by the time I pushed through the end, I only felt sort of relieved that I could finally move on to the next book on my stack. Whenever this happens, I always wonder if it’s the book itself, or if it’s me–I had an incredibly busy month and could only read this in short bursts here and there, which almost always takes the magic out of any reading experience. But at the same time, maybe it still should have pulled me in, either way. I felt like it took too long for Arthur and Merle’s stories to connect, and hence for the overall point of the book to feel solid and meaningful. And while the writing was, on one hand, absolutely beautiful in many points, I almost felt like it was too flowery at other points, that there were too many adjectives and metaphors and throughout the entire thing, I had to go back and re-read sentences over and over again when I realized I had no idea what I had just read. Which typically doesn’t happen in YA, which this book is. This is not to say that language in YA shouldn’t be difficult; of course, I think it CAN be, and good reading that challenges you is typically a very good thing. But this felt not like it was challenging my brain, but simply making my brain glaze over in a distracting way.
That all said, I don’t regret reading this at all, and did find so many aspects of it fascinating: I previously knew nothing of Arthur Rimbaud, and little of the French-Prussian war, and I did absolutely love the character of the old, fishing musician man, along with the eventually revealed myth behind him. Elizabeth Hand is also an extremely prolific and successful writer of both adult and youth fiction, winning many prestigious awards, so the effect of her writing on me is clearly purely personal. If you’ve read any of her work before, or if you’re interested in art and poetry, I would still recommend picking up Radiant Days.