Kayla Bell reviews Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Radiant Days cover

There aren’t many stories that can truly say they’ve done time travel in a unique way. Going back to the past or ahead to the future have already been done dozens of times. A fish out of water, or out of time, is going to make for an interesting story. But Radiant Days does time travel differently, and in a way that felt very compelling to me. 

Radiant Days takes place in two different time periods. The 1870s storyline follows French poet Arthur Rimbaud through the trials and tribulations of his youth. The other storyline takes place in the 1970s, and follows Virginia art student Merle as she develops her craft and explores the street art scene. Merle is exploring her sexuality and Arthur is trying to survive as an artist in an oppressive time. One night, somehow, they meet and connect over their shared love of art. In terms of plot, there isn’t anything too major beyond that. 

Still, I found this book really compelling. Merle’s voice feels very authentic, and I wanted to see her make it out okay despite being in a bit of a toxic relationship. I also appreciated the unique perspective of a queer woman from Appalachia. Merle’s sexuality wasn’t at the forefront of the novel, and I think that was quite refreshing. She was also trying to deal with her complex family dynamics, recovering from the abuse she grew up around, and trying to make it in the art world. At the same time, the storyline following Arthur was also entertaining and kept me reading. Hand mixes historical events with humor and fun in a way that clearly showed how much respect and admiration she had for Arthur Rimbaud. As a Young Adult book, I thought this story structure was a clever way to get young readers interested in what from another writer might be a drier historical story. 

That being said, I would have liked to have seen a bit more plot in this novel. Merle exploring the graffiti subculture of the 1970s was very interesting, but I think the story could have used a little more of a driver. Similarly, I wish that Arthur had been given a chance to develop more as a character, I found myself wanting to read more of his inner thoughts and feelings and connecting more with Merle than Arthur. It was clear that both protagonists were impacted by their meeting out of time, but I think the story could have benefitted from spending a bit more time describing the impacts on both of them. With that being said, I thought that this was an excellently paced novel that is fantastic for younger readers. 

If you know a young person that is looking for a book about the power of art and what it means to break the rules, and is interested in historical fiction, this is a great option. I found myself feeling genuinely connected to both characters by the end of the book, and I can only imagine that it would be even more powerful for a younger reader. More queer historical fiction, especially about artists, is something I definitely want to see. 

Jill reviews Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand


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.