Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Hachette Australia in exchange for an honest review.
I know you’ve heard it before, but I love Catherynne Valente and would gladly devour anything she writes, be it short stories, full-length novels, or daily tweets. I love the way she blends existing myth and folklore to construct sublime new worlds. With Radiance, she brings old Hollywood glamour and the age of silent film into celestial space. The result is an enchanting and dream-like mystery spanning across multiple genres.
“She is dead. Almost certainly dead. Nearly conclusively dead.
She is, at the very least, not answering her telephone.”
Once again, Valente awes me with her artistry with words and inimitable proses. Whether she’s describing the oceans of Neptune or one of Severin’s seven mothers, her hold on the imagination is absolute. In fact, I’m resisting the temptation to type up a bunch of quotes from this book and calling it a day – as they alone will be more convincing than my entire review. With Radiance, Valente goes further with her ever brilliant writing. Radiance is technically impressive. It incorporates a mix of medium, ranging from interview transcripts to movie reels to callowmilk adverts, giving an almost textural layer to the mystery of Severin Unck. The range of format allows the story to metamorphose at will: sometimes it’s film noir, at other it’s a perplexing fairy tale.
The tale Radiance weave is as ever-changing as the book’s fragmented format. The story is centred around the disappearance of Severin Unck, who was last seen filming a documentary on Venus in an attempt to unravel some of the planet’s watery secrets. The text offers non-linear puzzle pieces spanning across multiple interstellar bodies and characters. Despite the irregular method of story-telling, Radiance manages to weave a cohesive yet tangled web of relationships. The clues given are sometimes as murky as the mystery itself, leaving readers to ultimately decide what’s real and what’s the result of well-crafted storytelling.
“A tale may have exactly three beginnings: one for the audience, one for the artist, and one for the poor bastard who has to live in it.”
Time and again, Radiance plays on the art of stories – specifically the one we see through camera lenses. Each of the major player in the tale is a master of story-telling. There’s Percival Unck, director of numerous of the Moon’s blockbusters, and who literally directed many scenes from Severin’s own life – including a re-enactment of the hour he discovered her on his doorstep. There’s Mary Pellam, one of Severin’s mother, she possesses 769 different faces. Last but not least, there’s Severin, who rejects her father’s obsessive and linear control over each narrative – she strikes out to uncover the truths via her documentaries. In a way, the disjointed nature of Radiance felt true to Severin’s own beliefs that life is never clear-cut.
Moons, though lovely, just lovely, are consolation prizes. Sino-Russian Mars. Saturn split between Germany and Austria-Hungary. French Neptune. American Pluto. Spanish Mercury. Ottoman Jupiter. All present and accounted for – except Venus.
Then there’s the world, this wondrous parallel universe where mankind reaches not only the Moon, but to far-flung reaches of space in Pluto by the 1800s. By the time our story begins in mid-1940s, Hollywood proliferates on the moon, lavender corn farmed on Saturn, and callowmilk from titanic Venusian whales both nourishes and rule most of the Solar System. Amidst such wondrous progress, we also have call-back to bygone eras in the form of silent, black-and-white film – thanks to the Edison’s iron-clad patent on sound and colour recordings. Valente paints a world where blue-skinned humans walk the moon, where divers of Venus plunge its watery depth to harvest callowmilk, where a long-lost American colony lie destroyed on Pluto. Each imagery is vivid and powerful, space seems at once mythical and astronomically vast.
”Sit down with the Greeks and the Romans, and the boring answers get more interesting. Seasons because a girl and a crocus. Death because a girl and an apple. The moon because a girl keeps driving her daft chariot into the sea.
It’s all down to girls, one way or another.”
Speaking of myth, like with Valente’s previous work, Radiance is littered with age-old allegories and metaphors. There’s classical Greek pantheon and theatre at play here, but there’s also hints of western fairy tales, and a healthy dash of Mesopotamian myth. Quantum physics is also carefully considered and thrown into the mix, such as the aptly named space-liner Enki – its equatorial circuit of Neptune sometimes leave it stranded from Earth’s communication for decades. There’s an overwhelming amount of detail in Radiance, there are certainly hundreds of homages and nuances I have missed – but that’s the joy of new discovery on each re-read is why I love Valente’s writing.
In spite of my love for this book, I would have to admit that it’s a difficult read due to its fragmented storyline, especially towards the beginning. While I love the author’s signature ornate and impressive proses, I know that it does not appeal to 100% of the population. Radiance is a book to be savoured, so if you’re looking for a quick read – you won’t find it here. But if you’re trying to find a provoking homage to film-making, story-telling, and science-fiction, run to your nearest bookseller and treat yourself.
Have you read Catherynne Valente’s books? If not, what are you waiting for?!