Yet 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…
Davis 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.
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.