I first discovered the work of Catherynne M. Valente through my love of the Brontës, and more specifically, their Glass Town and Angrian writings. A few months ago I stumbled across Valente’s The Glass Town Game, a children’s book featuring the Brontës and their fictional childhood creations and just had to read it. You can read my review here if you’re interested. The long and short of it is that I loved it and just had to track down some more Valente to read. Surfing the web I discovered that Valente is a prolific author, but unfortunately not especially well known in the U.K (that needs to change). She was also about to release a new novel entitled Space Opera which I was dying to read, however, as it will not be released in physical format in the U.K. until October, I flirted with purchasing the ebook, which would be made available at the same time as in the U.S. However, I don’t get on especially well with ebooks; many a time I’ve bought them and simply left them sitting there in the middle of all of my apps and games etc., unread and unloved. There are sometimes exceptions including Juliet Bell’s The Heights, a re-telling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights which I tore through and devoured recently despite it being an ebook, however, the unread ebooks far outweigh the ones I’ve actually bothered with. This is not a comment about the quality of ebooks or the writing of the respective authors, it’s just that I’m a traditionalist and bibliophile so it’s very difficult for me to get into reading books that aren’t technically books.
A bit miffed but still wanting to read more Valente, I searched the internet for her published titles, finally settling on Radiance as it spoke to my growing interest in Science Fiction and my age-old obsession with the movies, film-making, and story-telling. The version I found also had the most gorgeous cover featuring a wide-eyed, beautiful starlet, a rocket ship, and film reels. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes a striking design does help. After finishing the novel, I realised just how perfectly the cover expresses the narrative, so kudos to whoever designed this particular edition.
I’m not even sure where to start describing Radiance. It’s arguably part Science Fiction and part hard-boiled Noir, a partially nostalgic and partially futuristic novel in which story-telling, truth, lies, fact, fiction, reality, and illusion are explored. It has layers upon layers in which characters flit in and out of the narrative, a narrative which jumps around in time every time you finish a chapter, and a mystery at its heart in the form of Severin Unck, the daughter of a famous film director, whose unexplained disappearance leaves the people closest to her confused, lost, desperate for answers, but often unwilling to talk. The novel actually begins with a chronology of events featuring names which will mean absolutely nothing to you until you begin to get further into the narrative, so don’t even try to memorise everything listed before reading; you’ll definitely be flicking back to this as certain characters are introduced and certain films discussed and documented. Be warned though; this is a demanding read, particularly initially and it’s not for everyone. If you like your novels more straight-forward and less experimental, I wouldn’t pick this one up, but if you do, you’re in for a treat.
The prologue gives you an idea of the style and tone of the novel, and also introduces you to the heroine/protagonist/central mystery that is Severin Unck and her father, the award-winning and renowned director, Pericval Unck. The story is actually made up of multiple narratives using different forms and expressed through different characters. There are diaries, there are gossip columns, notes from meetings and transcripts from official conversations, snatches of dialogue from films, radio programmes, and even cartoons. The main point is to solve the mystery of Severin’s disappearance. As we don’t have Severin herself, we are instead presented with ghosts, fragments, echoes, and recordings of her from film footage, characters’ recollections, and photographs. The novel reads like a giant jigsaw puzzle which has yet to be assembled correctly, and in addition to jumping backwards and forwards in time, Valente quite happily hops from planet to planet, letting her readers take in exotic locations such as the moon, Pluto, Venus, Mars, and Uranus. Earth doesn’t really get a look in, but we already know what that’s like so instead soak up Valente’s wonderful and dreamy descriptions of new places, new cities, and new planets.
The novel really kick-starts with the character of Anchises St. John, a lone wolf in the style of Philip Marlowe, who we meet on the wild streets of a Uranus Philip K. Dick would be proud of; St. John is coerced into beginning (and ending) his own journey and relationship with Severin, the woman who rescued him from his ruined hometown of Adonis, Venus, shortly before her disappearance. St. John’s sections are where Valente really goes to town with blending SF and the noir, and these are arguably the most familiar and accessible parts of the novel. Alongside St. John’s brooding and broke (former?) P.I., we are presented with Percival Unck’s recollections of his daughter, and his attempts to mould her disappearance into something he can make sense of, into a story he can fit an ending to, and of course, a film he can create; there are constant revisions, but what else would one expect from an award-winning story-teller? We are also introduced to the history, memoirs, and work of Percy’s seven wives and one lover (no spoilers here), who themselves have their respective parts to play in the story of Severin’s life, and the beginning and end of her relationship with her father. Add Erasmo St. John, Severin’s lover and Anchises’ adopted father into the mix, and you get the real emotional centre of the various narratives despite his attempt to keep his interrogator at a distance. A director of photography, we are properly introduced to Erasmo when he is debriefed by the head of security of Oxblood films regarding the mysterious disappearance of not only Severin, but serval other crew members of the film they were shooting in Adonis. His feelings for Severin are clear (he wears a wedding ring on his right hand as she didn’t want to marry him but he considers himself her husband), and his initial reluctance to talk is intriguing and slightly mysterious. In between all of this, Valente gives a vivid representation of off-world life, pens some truly beautiful dialogue and prose, and quite frankly, I’m in awe.
Radiance is not so much a whodunit, nor is it even a what-has-happened? Instead it is more of a what-is-happening? There is more than one mystery to be solved in this tale and endless questions, and arguably endless endings. What are these characters searching for? What are their relationships with one another? Who exactly is Anchises? What’s with the intrusion of the ubiquitous Callowmilk, Valente’s own version of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, into the narrative? What happened to Severin? And more importantly, what was Severin herself desperately seeking the answers to before her disappearance? Remarkably, Valente does not present fragmentary and flat characters, but fully realised, three dimensional ones we grow to like and care about, with the exception of Severin herself, but that is arguably exactly the point of her; we know her enough to know we will never know her. We’re all trying to get to grips with the entire mystery of Severin Unck, to know the unknowable. To be honest, I’m still trying to get my head around the novel’s ending, but I don’t really know how else it could have all ended. How does one both solve and present a mystery? Just ask Valente.
My overall verdict? Dreamy, daring, delicious, demanding. Radiance is about as close to perfect as you can get in book form. I just can’t get it out of my head. Despite Space Opera turning out to be a massive disappointment (I caved and purchased the ebook which was abandoned just before the halfway mark due to its dull characters and lack of action), I’d highly recommend a trip to Severin’s world where you’ll find me soaking up any little details I may have missed first time around in my haste to solve the mystery, and fully appreciating this magnificent novel now that (I think) I have the full picture.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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