Capsule reviews: Radiance, by Catherynne M Valente, and Eleanor, by Jason Gurley

Racing to finish the last of March’s books before March bloody well ends, I realized that my last two reads had some interesting thematic similarities, so I decided to present the reviews to you side-by-side, in capsule form. (Also, I’m behind again. That’s probably the more honest reason for using this format.)

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente (Corsair Books)

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Someone wrote a review of this recently that commenced with the breathless exclamation, “SPACE WHALES.” And yeah, there are whales, and yeah, it’s in space, and yeah, the whales are actually the most important thing about the mystery that forms the book’s nominal core. The reason I say “nominal” is that, although the catalyst for all the action is the attempts of survivors and the bereaved to work out what happened to documentary filmmaker Severin Unck when she disappeared on the planet Venus, what the book ends up demonstrating at its core is the story-ness of stories. How we frame things and from what angle we choose to tell a tale: these are decisions that absolutely define whatever tale we’re telling. You might think that just saying what happened is fairly straightforward, but Radiance reminds us that it’s not.

Severin makes documentaries. Her father, Percival Unck, is a famous director in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the late 1800s and early 1900s. His style tends towards the Gothic and the noir; he has swooning heroines, unscrupulous villainesses, blood, castles, thunderstorms, the works. The only things we might find unusual are that a) all of these are set, and indeed filmed, on other worlds (The Red Beast of Saturn; The Spectres of Mare Nubium), and that b) they are all silent movies. This is a universe where the European race to acquire colonies has spread to the stars (Neptune is French, the Moon is British, and so on), and where the Edison family hoards patents so that providing sound in films has become prohibitively expensive.

This silencing means that you interpret films solely through your eyes: you can only think about what you have seen, not what you have heard. (There are title cards, of course, as for the silent movies of our own universe.) Acting is about convincing people through your face, your bearing, your very body. It’s not to do with what you say; it’s what you do. Of course, this leads to a profound interest in how people construct themselves—which is one of the main concerns of fiction, full stop. Severin is filmed from nearly the beginning of her life, often having to go back and do things again for a third time or a fourth, until Percival feels he’s got the shot. This includes the “scene” where he finds her in a basket on his doorstep; he makes his assistant, Vince (Vincenza, actually) go back and do it again so that he can film it in the proper dramatic fashion.

Her disappearance is revealed on the book’s third page, and the rest of the book is a series of documents—filming scripts, advertising voiceovers, journal entries, “straight” prose—by people as diverse as her favourite stepmother (she’s had seven), her father and Vince, her lover Erasmo, and the voiceless, traumatised boy whom they found on Venus before she disappeared, whom Erasmo subsequently raised as his own son. It’s a totally flamboyant narrative strategy, and Valente’s style is flamboyant too, as she mimics hard-boiled noir detective, mysterious beckoning omnipotent persona, young but already cynical actress out to make her fortune, and other voices. There’s a sense of exploding colour and drama and texture: sequins and palettes are described in lavish detail. It’s Old Hollywood, after all.

Although the reveal is brilliant, and the sheer verve and vivaciousness of the writing has you racing forward to figure it out, I don’t think that Radiance is making an especially new point, once you strip it right back to its basics. I think it’s a book about storytelling, and although that is beautiful and important and appeals to me, a savvy reader will already be aware of how narratives are contingent: how they depend on who is telling them, how they are constantly incomplete, how death and loss are plot points you can’t get around, how real life isn’t anything like a story anyway. But Valente conveys all of this with exceptional style, and her writing is downright beautiful (not to mention that much of its sly humour had me grinning widely). It is certainly a book worth reading, and I’m already keen to see what Valente, who’s already had tremendous success with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, comes up with next. Her imagination seems boundless.

Eleanor, by Jason Gurley (Harper Voyager)

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Now that I come to the second half of this post, and have to think back to what I said earlier about thematic similarities, I’m worried that they won’t come across fully. Eleanor is a book about mothers and daughters, about the awful repercussions of acts across generations. It is sort of about time travel and sort of about the subconscious. I didn’t emphasize any of those in my Radiance review, but I think it’s important to reiterate that they are present in that book as well, and that reading these two back-to-back was an experience where both texts ended up illuminating one another.

In 1962, Eleanor is married to Hob and has a toddler daughter, Agnes. Hob is good to her, almost incredibly so; he is the man that everyone wants to meet and fall in love with, kind and loving and with an understanding for her foibles that borders on the infinite. And yet Eleanor isn’t happy; she married young, she feels stifled. She was a high school swimmer with potential to be Olympian, but that all changed with the birth of Agnes. Now she’s pregnant again and falling into depression. One morning she wakes early, drives their truck to the nearby ocean, walks into the waves, and never comes back. In 1985, Agnes is an adult now with twin daughters, Esme and Eleanor. A car crash kills Esme, and Agnes’s whole world is destroyed by loss for a second time. In 1993, Eleanor is now fourteen and the primary carer for Agnes, now an embittered alcoholic who hates her remaining daughter and blames her for Esme’s death. But something starts happening to Eleanor: she’s beginning to slip out of time, to disappear from her own world and reappear in another. Slowly, over several years, she starts to piece together what these strange vanishing acts have to do with her family history, and what she has to do to get them to stop.

Much of the plot is guessable, although the identity of Efah (an odd, seemingly male entity who lives in the Rift that Eleanor keeps falling into) took me rather too long to guess. Part of that is the intense immersion that Gurley makes you undertake. The prose is straightforward and doesn’t draw attention to itself, but Gurley’s grasp of emotional beats is impressively good. There is a scene where Eleanor, her would-be boyfriend Jack, and her father Paul find Agnes comatose in her bedroom—but they don’t notice her at first; what’s drawn them upstairs is the sound of home videos, featuring long-gone Esme, playing on the bedroom television. Time seems to hang suspended as you read that scene; Gurley shows you Paul, horrified and grief-stricken and fascinated and longing for his baby back, Eleanor, transfixed by seeing an image of her twin for the first time in eight years, Jack, who doesn’t quite know what to do. In the hands of an inexperienced or overconfident writer, that scene could have been cringingly awful. Instead it bruised me; it made me hurt.

The way that the supernatural is invoked frustrates me in some ways, because I think the heart of this story is in the way that people fail to heal. Agnes is completely destroyed by her childhood trauma and by the shock of losing a child, and her response—to blight the life of her remaining daughter—is indefensibly awful. But it happens all the time, in countries and cities all over the planet. People react to things badly. Many of them limp on through their lives, but many of them never recover. It’s kind of up to you, in some senses, to negotiate a way of continuing to function with the dark scars of bereavement and fuckuppery. What Severin Unck knows in Radiance (aha! here’s a connection) is that you can’t restage the moments that change your life. What Jason Gurley gives us, in Eleanor, is a story where you can. And the curious thing is that (avoiding spoilers here, I think) not much needs to be sacrificed.

Many, many thanks to both Clara Diaz at Corsair and Jaime Frost at Harper Voyager for the review copies. Radiance was published in the UK on 3 March; Eleanor was published on 10 March.

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10 thoughts on “Capsule reviews: Radiance, by Catherynne M Valente, and Eleanor, by Jason Gurley

  1. Now I’m tempted to read both of these books together, just to see the connections. But it’s the second one that appeals to me the most. I like the idea of the generations, and, stupidly, in my head I’m already thinking that when I read it the characters will be able to figure it all out okay in the end and pass on to me all their secrets. Sometimes I have this idea that books unfold differently for everyone (despite being written down beforehand), and that you can’t actually know what’s going to happen until you get there. 🙂

    • I like that! I do think that although the plot and words may technically remain the same, every reading of a book is subtly (or not so subtly) different. An ending can be convincing or ridiculous to two different people, or the same person at two different times. You never know til you get there, as you say.

  2. I’ve had Radiance sitting on my Kindle for months, always the bridesmaid never the bride when I pick a new book. I read some Valente years and years ago when she first emerged on the speculative short fiction scene and really admired her writing, but avoided her long form so far because I was afraid it would be stylistically overwhelming. Now, reading your review, I’m unsure if e-book is the right format for reading it. Mixed style/media doesn’t tend to work too well on a little screen.

    • It’s more straightforward than, say, House of Leaves–it reads linearly, and I didn’t find myself having to flip back and forth. It is, however, very much a surrender-to-the-author kind of book (or at least I thought so).

      I’m about to try reading on an ereader for the second time in my life (borrowed my partner’s mum’s Kobo)–am a bit worried that I won’t like it, since I’m such a materialist about books.

      • Let us know how you get on with the kobo! I read very differently on a device to a physical book and it has taken me a while to work out how to best fit reads to format. Almost all my sf, YA and crime reading – in other words, the plot driven stuff – is on Kindle now. I absolutely race through stuff on there, maybe even twice as fast as a paper read, but I don’t linger over things the same. I can devour a series in no time at all. But ‘literary’ fiction almost never works for me in ebook; anything I want to savor or deliberate over has to be in paper, so that I can develop that tactile relationship with it. I’m usually reading one of each any one time.

      • I can’t read more than one book at once, so that’s really interesting–if only I could read one of each at the same time! Hopefully it will work well for The System of the World, which is certainly cerebral but, if it’s anything like the rest of the Baroque Cycle, will have a pretty rip-roaring plot, too.

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