Radiance - A Review

Have you ever read a book that feels like it was written just for you? A book that meshes so perfectly with the inner workings of your heart and your mind that you feel like you could have written it, if only you were as talented? I swear that that's how I feel every time I read a book by Catherynne Valente.

I discovered her a few years ago through a book called Palimpsest. A well-reviewed novel about a terrible and magical city that can only be accessed in dreams, and references folklore and mythology of a wide variety of different cultures is so far down my alley that I could have laid the bricks myself, and to my immense pleasure, I loved not only the story being told, but the way that she told it. Magical, lyrical, sensuously poetic. I was hooked.

Her Fairyland series (which is written for young adults, but is deeply meaningful for older audiences as well) and the two books that make up The Orphan's Tales have joined Palimpsest in the pantheon of my Favorite Novels Ever, so I was eager to pick up her new book (well, newer - it was released in 2015), Radiance. Even if I wasn't a Valente fan, how could I not dive right into a "decopunk" novel about a silent film star who disappears under mysterious circumstances while making a movie in an alternate universe where all of the planets in the solar system are inhabitable?

Severin Unck is the only child of Percival Unck, a great director of what we would recognize as high gothic melodramas. The baby girl appears mysteriously at his door one stormy night, her face bearing his unmistakable stamp. The novel takes a documentary style approach to exploring her life and the lives of those around her, pulling from a variety of sources such as news articles, home footage, screenplays, and diaries.

I must admit, I didn't exactly race through this book. It skips around chronologically a lot, so much so that they actually include a timeline of events in the front of the book in case the reader can't keep it all straight. That wasn't really an issue for me; mostly I found it hard to get invested in characters that I would see glimpses of in a news article or bit of a screenplay, only to have the next chapter move on to someone else entirely.

With some books I might have given up after a challenging first few pages, but I was hopeful that one of my favorite authors could pull off something interesting. Thankfully, my patience was rewarded when I came to one of the most interesting devices in the book - the screenplay being written by two of the characters, Percival Unck and his writing partner, about a strange young man named Anchises, the sole survivor of the mysterious disappearance of a Venusian village. It is while she is trying to make a documentary about the disappearance of the village that Severin herself disappears, and her grieving father processes his grief through the writing of this film, in which he imagines Anchises as a detective investigating her disappearance.

Percival writes the screenplay in a variety of different modes - first as a noir, then a gothic fantasy, then a fairytale, then finally as a murder mystery in the Agatha Christie mode. It's the closest thing to a straightforward narrative that the book has, and it's really interesting on a technical level to see how genre dictates how the characters are written. It's clever, but it also speaks to a thing that humans do, making our lives into narratives. It also gives us some breathing room to get to know and like some key characters from elsewhere in the novel, which is something that the story really needed.

Ok, so a clip from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend isn't exactly a silent film reel, but realizing that you are playing a different role in your life than you thought you were is totally relevant to what I was saying, and I'm a CXG evangelist so just watch it!

While I don't know if I can wholeheartedly recommend the novel in the same way that I would recommend some of her other books, I did ultimately find it both challenging and satisfying. It's not about Old Hollywood, but it takes that setting - the ingenues and auteurs and scheming gossip columnists - and spins it off into something strange and rather fantastic. I finished the book about a week ago, and I'm surprised at how much it's stayed with me since then, popping up in my mind at odd moments. If you also have a taste for the silent era, pulp novels, and a good mystery that reveals itself to you ever so slowly, do yourself a favor and give Radiance a try.