This is a wonderful book. I read it on the plane coming back from Virginia, where the main character, Merle, grew up. Parts of it gripped me so hard that I sat there in my seat, grinning like a fool, as if someone had just drenched me in sunshine. At the beginning of the novel, Merle is an 18-year-old art student in Washington, D.C. in 1978. On page 1 she leaps head-first into an affair with her 23-year-old teacher, Clea, because Clea is beautiful and Merle wants to capture her image. It's not a romance in the typical sense; it's a relationship between artist and muse, which is both straightforward and complex. In a way, the entire novel is about the relationship between artist and muse — or between artist and creative spark.
That spark comes into Merle's life in many ways, not only through Clea. It also comes when Merle encounters a homeless man by the river who gives her a key made of fish bones that unlocks the door to a building that spans time. This is where Radiant Days takes on a mythical quality, because it involves time travel.
Back in 1870 France, young poet Arthur Rimbaud is burning bright. He is tossed in prison for vagrancy; he dashes off fiery letters to his friends demanding that they help him; he meets a tramp with a fishbone key. Arthur steps through the door to 1978 Washington, D.C., and he meets Merle.
Their brief, brilliant encounter is the centerpiece of this book, and I think that if you don't get the life-changing nature of this meeting, you won't get the book. This is where I stopped and re-read two paragraphs several times, because these two paragraphs describe the sometimes reckless intensity of youthful creativity in a way that I completely recognized:
Arthur started as though I'd awakened him; turned and nodded. Carefully, he folded the pages and put them back into his coat. "The poems I'm working on now are better. These are…" He paused, frowning. "Old-fashioned. Pretty words and pictures. People want poetry to be a nursemaid. I want to be a murderer and a thief. Art should be like this—" He took my hand, pointing at the fresh scab where I'd cut myself on the fish-bone key. "It should be ugly, and hurt so you can feel it. That's what makes it powerful."
I nodded. "That's what I think! Clea said I need to learn the rules before I break them, but I think that's total bullshit. That's what my tag means—radiant days. Because right now I'm burning and alive, and I don't even fucking know if I'll be here tomorrow. Nobody does. I could die tonight. So I only have this one day to paint, all these radiant days, and when I'm gone my tag will still be there, and my paintings…"
Even though Radiant Days was published as young adult fiction, it does many things that are typically not done in YA. The main character is not under 18, and you also get to find out what happens to her later in life. But I think that Radiant Days captures the urgent desire of young creative people in a way that is absolutely genuine and authentic. I think this is a book that young artists in particular will appreciate.
I also enjoyed Radiant Days because it has a lesbian main character who is distinctly, uniquely cool. (Yes, cool!) Speaking simply as a reader — a reader who still hasn't read nearly enough books with lesbian main characters — I'm always looking for books where a character's sexual orientation isn't a problem; it just is. And that's the way it is with both Merle and Arthur. I'm still hungry for depictions of queer female characters who don't struggle with homophobia, internal or external; who move through the world with self-assurance. Merle does that, even as a young art student figuring out who she is. I really appreciate it when a character like her exists, because there simply aren't enough of them.
I will say that Radiant Days is an unusual book, and it's not for everyone. It spoke to me because it reflected some of my own feelings about art and inspiration. It reminded me of the magical effect that one experience can have on you. And on a writerly level, I loved it because Elizabeth Hand's sentences are damn good. It made me want to be a better writer.