The Radiant City by Lauren B. Davis

1847122Yet another wonderful and gripping book by Lauren B. Davis. I have read The Empty Room, Our Daily Bread, Against A Darkening Sky, and now one of her older novels The Radiant City, and I have loved them all. They are each filled with darkness, hardship and sadness, but with completely different stories and characters.

A middle-aged woman in The Empty Room battles alcoholism. Drugs, incest, abuse, and family dysfunction run amok in Our Daily Bread. A young woman is caught between her beliefs and the new Christian religion and the rulers who advocate it in Against A Darkening Sky. And in The Radiant City, a war correspondent is fighting with the demons that haunt him as a result of his past and his profession. All of it sounds depressing, yes? It is! So wonderfully depressing. If you love depressing books like I do (Emily?) then I guarantee you will like Lauren B. Davis. But when I say depressing, I don’t mean that I close the book feeling complete and utter despair for the state of the world. Instead, her books rip your heart out then places it back in such a way that it is better than it was before; kinder, gentler, more compassionate. And you are always left with hope for humanity. I hope Ms. Davis lives a very long life so she can keep writing me books.

In The Radiant City, Matthew Bowles has lived through some terrible moments as a war correspondent. He has also lived through some terrible moments as a child. He is now wandering the streets of Paris; hiding from himself? hiding from the world? trying to forget? trying to remember so that he can forget? His secrets are slowly revealed to us as he navigates his past. This is not the Paris we all want to visit, but the seedier side of Paris; the Paris people go to forget themselves or to make a new life, whatever the case may be.

Wave after wave of people arrive from everywhere in the world, looking for safe haven, for inspiration, looking for the famous liberté, egalité, faternité. They come from America, from Romania, from Vietnam, from Algeria, from Cambodia, from Iran, Argentina, Russia… from everywhere life has been too dangerous, too difficult, or too dull.          They sleep in rooms too cold or too hot, rooms with no insulation between the walls, and they fall asleep to the sounds of someone else’s snoring, or their lovemaking, or their weeping, their whimpers, their flatulence, their rage. They hang their clothes out of windows on racks to air out the stench of cooking fat and cigarettes. They grow geraniums and lavender and basil in pots on the sills. They put on extra socks before they go to bed in the winter and suck on ice in the summer when the pollution is so thick the inside of the mouth tastes like diesel fuel and all the wealthy people have closed up shop and gone to Deauville or Cannes or Annecy.

I love Matthew’s character, although he is not always entirely likable. But despite everything he’s been through, he still cares about other people. And this is what saves him, I think. As Davis says in her interview with Harper Collins, “…his only option was to move into compassion, into humility, into love, or to move away from it.

He doesn’t want to wander in the dark lands alone anymore. How to explain the hopelessness of self-loathing, the terrible treadmill of it, bringing him always, irrevocably, back to his own loathsome self? How to explain that he wants to spend the rest of his life not thinking about himself at all, for doing so seems merely selfish, merely still self-centered, merely useless, exhausting. How to explain that for a moment or two sitting inside Jack’s cave, he had balanced, stretched, inched toward another person, one who was as unlovable as Matthew feels himself to be – and that in doing so the appalling ache of self-hatred, indeed, of self, had disappeared. Just for a moment, and he hadn’t even been aware of the moment until it was gone and left a glimmer of longing for its return…

1847121Davis shows compassion for all her characters; they are not fundamentally good or bad, but are somewhere in between. It is impossible not to feel for them no matter what it is they are like or have done. This is what makes this book hard to read. It wouldn’t be so painful if we didn’t care. All of these characters have a violent past, and they are all living with it in different ways. In the Backstory to The Radiant City, Davis describes her characters as “struggling against their inability to learn from their own devastating pasts. They are all battered, brittle survivors of violence in one form or another, and yet they still may be powerless to turn away from violence.” It is what each character does with their past that is so compelling to read about. And how their actions and interactions culminate in the conclusion to the story.

The storyline that got to me the most (producing the most waterworks) was the story of Saida and her son Joseph. At 16, Joseph is out on the streets with his “friends”, lying to his mother about where he is and what he’s doing. She is in agony worrying about him, but doesn’t know what to do. I could physically feel her agony in the pit of my stomach as I read, thanking my lucky stars that my children are not roaming the streets of Paris.

Light takes on the characteristics of the objects on its path, and this, he has come to believe, is what humans do as well. Light can blind as well as reveal It can save someone who wanders too close to an unseen edge, but it can just as easily betray a person cowering in a hidden place. He has concluded that contrary to what religious imagery would try to persuade the populace, light is neutral, and indifferent.

And so they look, but do not see. Hear, but do not listen. Know, but will not admit. Admit. To let in. To permit access to. Like light.

 Further Reading:

The Reader’s Guide to The Radiant City in which Lauren B. Davis talks about her own time in Paris, and her love for her damaged characters.

An excerpt from The Radiant City, found on the author’s website.

Review at parisvoice

Review at Quill & Quire

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30 thoughts on “The Radiant City by Lauren B. Davis

  1. FictionFan says:

    I love the quotes – her writing style is “literary” without coming over as pretentious. And I can take a bit of depression so long as there’s some hope at the end. And Paris! A great review – hmm… I really can’t keep adding to the TBR… can I?

    • Naomi says:

      Of course you can! And, if you like reading novels set in Paris, then you might want to add this one to the list. Paris is huge in this book. I’ve never been there, but I felt like I have! (The author lived there for 10 years.)

  2. priscilla says:

    Oh, I’m not familiar with this author at all, but it sounds like I need to remedy that soon. I love dark books, especially if the author isn’t simply using dark situations to manipulate the reader.

    • Naomi says:

      She said in her interview that she writes about things that are bugging her, and she wants to work them out. Knowing this, makes her books even more interesting to read!

  3. Read Diverse Books says:

    Everyone should reads these kinds of books. They’re so important! They teaches us how to be empathetic and experience the struggles of others vicariously. We get to understand people’s complexities and flaws and come to understand that all of it makes them uniquely human. Hopefully we can can learn from that and apply the same kind of empathy into people in our real lives and ourselves!
    We all know that avid readers are kinder, more compassionate people that non-readers. Well, this is exactly the kind of book that teaches us how to be great people.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree with you 100% Naz! The toughest books to read are usually the ones everyone *should* read. There are so many lives to try out that are so different from my own, and I enjoy living them through fiction, even when it’s uncomfortable.

  4. Grab the Lapels says:

    I really like the quote about the hot summer tasting like diesel in your mouth. It reminded me of walking the streets of Chicago when the temp is in the 90s.

    I’ve read so many books lately that make me feel like the world is coming to an end. It’s helpful to hear that a book can be depressing yet make us more compassionate. Naomi, how do you allow yourself to read the same author many times? I get this weird book panic, like if I keep reading Author X then I will miss out on all these other books that exist. I get nearly in a panic about it.

    • Naomi says:

      I did spread her books out over about 2.5 years, so I really don’t *feel* like I read them close together. Also, I find them quick because they are so engrossing that I can’t put them down. I’ve actually been feeling pretty proud of myself for having read 4 books by the same author in a relatively short amount of time. That doesn’t happen very often, so it must be telling!

  5. Emily J. says:

    It sounds like this should be my new favorite author. I’m kind of in a depressed funk right now, so maybe her books are just what I need!

  6. Bina says:

    Love the sound of this and have to shameful admit to not even having heard of the author. I need to read more Canadian literature! The quotes you posted are amazing, “Light can blind as well as reveal It can save someone who wanders too close to an unseen edge, but it can just as easily betray a person cowering in a hidden place,” so apt!

    • Naomi says:

      I’m sure there are many people who haven’t heard of her. I am doing my best to change that, though! 🙂
      Her books are so hard to put down, and there were many passages that I marked. It was hard to choose just a few!

  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    How wonderful that you have enjoyed every one of Lauren Davis’ books you’ve read so far. This one sounds as great as all the others you’ve reviewed. I’ve added her name to the list of authors/books to look out for when we’re heading north this summer. 🙂

  8. Brian says:

    Great review. All books are better when authors draw their characters in shades of grey not simply black and white. This one goes on my list.

  9. Ioana @ booksreenchanted says:

    Thank you so much Naomi, for introducing this author to me. It’s wonderful being exposed to more international (non-US) authors, and I really should be reading more Canadian literature.. This one sounds amazing, just my kind of book (bring on the depressive dark books that explore war and complex relationships).

  10. DoingDewey says:

    I’m not sure I can bring myself to pick up a book I know is going to be about sadness, darkness, and hardship, but I’m excited for you that you’ve found an author you enjoy so much! There are very few authors where I can I’ve loved all of their books 🙂

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