Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review of Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Writers use their personal inspirations in a lot of different ways in their fiction.  It may be something only peripherally motivational, detected in a character name or subtle setting detail, and it may be so much as a complete rip-off.  Elizabeth Hand is a writer prone to using personal experience in creating her characters and settings, but to date has yet to dip into historical reference for inspiration.  Radiant Days (2012), however, finds the versatile writer paralleling the troubled youth of Arthur Rimbaud with the strife experienced by a gifted young woman trying to survive herself.

Merle is from a troubled home.  Her father a drinker and mother essentially non-existent, it’s only through the motivation of a teacher and a little luck that she gets a place at an art university in Washington D.C. in 1978.  Her first semester not going off as planned, an affair with a married woman, a failed trip to the big city, and a general rebelliousness serve to push her into the gutter: a university drop-out without a home.  Walking the riverbank one night she encounters an aging musician tramping it in rags and tattered boots.  Her life, surprisingly, changes forever.

Small moments in Arthur Rimbaud’s youth in France fictionalized before a strange portal in time brings him into Merle’s life, the young poet learns something of 1970s America in a wild time with Merle.  Hand having every opportunity to take the gimmick too far, she wisely keeps one hand on the leash, never letting Rimbaud stray too far.  The lives of the two troubled yet brilliant artists made to work analogously, Hand abandons the metaphor before it becomes too trite, allowing instead the depth of the two characters to drive what is, in fact, a revisioning of the Orpheus myth.

A young woman with little chance in the world who must make things happen for herself but not without first earning some cuts and scratches in the learning curve is a common enough sighting in a Hand story.  But thanks to Hand’s strong talent for character, Merle and Rimbaud fail to bore or underachieve.  Her plight rendered in direct, emotive terms, the reader becomes associated with the person, not the stereotype, and thus embeds themselves ever deeper in the story.  Rimbaud’s story less certain, Hand seems more sure writing the places and characters she knows than those she appreciates.  The dovetailing of the two’s lives, however, goes off without a hitch.

Kunstlerroman, Radiant Days describes the coming of age of a young woman who seems hell bent on preventing herself from ever being noticed let alone a success in the art realm.  Her innate talent not enough, the need to gain cognizance of the world at large and come to some terms of peace and understanding proves personally vital.  Written in Hand’s practiced pen, the author once again proves why she is one of the best fabulists on the market today—and hopefully some form of inspiration to other would-be writers to give up on tired imitation.

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