Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand is a uniquely compelling young adult novel. I read it as though I were living it – which wasn’t always the most comfortable sensation – and it continued to haunt me long after I turned the last page. Those looking for a tale that is both surreal and cerebral will find this quite a delicious read.
The novel features two protagonists – one fictional and one real – living in completely different timelines. Merle Tappitt is a young artist from a poor Appalachian town who studies at the Corcoran School of Art in late 1970s Washington, DC. If you can imagine Lisbeth Salander wielding a paintbrush and spray paint can, you may understand Merle’s inability to please her professors or to truly connect to the girlfriend who nudges her toward commercially viable artistic expression.
Merle’s first-person narrative alternates with a 3rd person account of 16-year-old Arthur Rimbaud and his quest to escape both a domineering mother and the ravages of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871-72. Writing and alcohol seem his only solace . . . at least until he magically transports to Merle’s timeline and finds a kindred spirit.
It’s bizarre, but it works.
Two things struck me as particularly memorable about this story: 1) the deeply intimate and transformative relationship between two characters — a bond that is refreshingly nonsexual, and 2) the lyrical writing, particularly during moments of agony and transcendence, such as in this passage:
A torrent of memory and words and desire surged through him, and his head pounded: a dike had been breached. The membrane that separated him from the written world dissolved, a white flame that burned away flesh and hair and bone so that only words remained and he was there and not there, sole creator of a world that contained only him and the wheeling stars: Alpha and Omega, I and somebody else.
His breath caught in his throat. It was not a revelation but a life sentence, not rapture but rupture. (191)
Radiant Days is not an easy book, but its strange beauty will captivate you.