Radiant City

by Lauren B. Davis
ISBN: 000200576X

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A Review of: The Radiant City
by Ingrid Ruthig

The shimmering surfaces of urban landscapes and the reality of their gritty substrate seem to have left their mark on Montreal-born writer Lauren B. Davis. Her well-received first novel, The Stubborn Season, rooted itself in the thinly masked prejudices, madness, and turmoil of Toronto during the Great Depression. Her second novel, The Radiant City, finds purchase in Paris-a city that, to the bedazzled visitor, radiates the light' mythologized in recent history. Yet for the displaced survivors of the world's horrors who try to make a new life there, it proves more danger zone than haven.
The novel centers around Matthew Bowles, a freelance war correspondent struggling with post-traumatic stress following an incident in Hebron that shattered more than one life. When he's released from an Israeli hospital, scarred and still in shock, he forfeits certainty, his work, a long-term relationship, and his vision of himself as a good man. He needs money, so he accepts a New York publisher's advance to write his memoir. In Paris, "a good city to be fucked up in," he discovers that his demons paralyze him, and surviving another day is all he can manage. "People think that if it is true, what he and others like him have to say about the world, then the world is too horrible, too terrifying to continue living inHe weeps for a long time, and when he is done he reaches for the sleeping pills he keeps handy and takes more than he should."
Matthew reconnects with an old colleague-a sometime mercenary and photographer, Jack Saddler, who describes himself as "a deranged-[Vietnam] Vet-ex-con-war-junkie with a drinking problem." Saddler's chutzpah once saved their lives in Kosovo. Teaming up again with Jack leads Matthew down a booby-trapped' path that entwines his life with the lives of other walking wounded: New York ex-cop Anthony who sports a metal plate in his head; Suzi, a track-marked French prostitute hell-bent on finding relief from the pain of losing her daughter; and Saida, whose diminished family fled death in Lebanon only to drift apart while running a caf near Matthew's apartment. These people all know about "lugging a sack of skulls."
In the shadowy labyrinth of cosmopolitan Paris, each hopes to find shelter and escape from guilt, loss, loneliness, and the mental shellshock that continues to haunt them. However, no one new is ever allowed to forget the differences between those who are at home' here and those like themselves who have been uprooted with little or no chance of going back. As a neighbour of Saida's remarks, "You Arabsletting your children run the streets. Criminals and drug addicts. It will be the death of France!'" Saida "worries about her father, who has never found his way in this country, never healed-as though anyone could-from the loss of so many family members." According to Matthew, its builders made Paris a "visually perfect jewel of a city so that as you go down for the third time at least you have something beautiful to look at."
Beautiful prose is not what this book is built on; there is nothing ornamental, frivolous, or pretty. Dazzling images are limited; encapsulating insights are infrequent. Sentences, viewed individually, generally don't warrant singular admiration or reconsideration. Instead, the language that's utilized is straightforward, cutting to the chase in journalistic fashion.

"They head along Saint-Germain, but as they walk they hear a commotion of some sort ahead of them, and Matthew's skin tightens. He glances at Jack who, frowning, peers over the heads of the sidewalk crowd. There are voices, some shouting. Car horns. Someone has a bullhorn. Matthew tries to make out the words and cannot."

But this is not to say that the sum of the parts leaves no lasting impression. The writing communicates with precision and immediacy, and has a cumulative impact.

"Paris disappears. He tastes dust. The world reduces to the need to seek cover. He hears shots, people screaming, sees small bursts of flame around him. He covers his head and crawls on his elbows and knees, kicking out where he mustHe screams. Obscenities. Loudly. Someone trips on him and he scrapes his knucklesHe wants the noise to stop. Just make it fucking stop!"

Meticulous details are also part of the recipe to evoke a sureness of place and time, even though there are moments when the lush offering of directions seems less than crucial to the telling of the story, when the step-by-step street names the characters encounter are distracting and only highlight the author's ten years of residency.
Nevertheless, it's difficult to put the book down. The gripping cinematic progression is almost disconcerting-unable to turn away, we become the literary equivalent of highway rubber-neckers slowing to gawp at a tragic mess. Whether conjuring atmosphere or emotion or ugliness, the fragmentation and bareness of the prose slices past the wafer-thin charm of surfaces to reveal a deeper reality: the truth of lives undone by violence.
Themes that take on topical issues often set off warning bells. Even here, the temptation might be to respond: Sure, the potential for violence stalks us at all times. Do we need to be shown yet again that the world is a horrible place because of it?' Despite fiction's capacity for prodding awareness, it can also become a didactic finger poking foreheads hard. But Davis preserves the personal human aspect. And therein lies another of the book's strengths. This story doesn't delve so much into political conflict as it does into conflict on the individual level: it focuses on the blurred greyness between right and wrong, where a person can be caught between us' and them'. And it forces us, along with the fictional characters, to ask how to be in the world as it is: "I wonder who's going to be good for us, Matt? Who are we going to be good for?' Anthony walks away then, just like that, and the place where he stood feels empty, a vacant spot in the shape of his body." It's not really the place that makes the difference; it's the person.
Matthew Bowles recalls how "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." The Radiant City reveals what's beyond the splendour of a setting or the calm expression on a face. This is smooth, engaging writing that doesn't flinch from the rawness that for so many people is life. "Light is neutral and indifferent." We can't afford to be. Perhaps that's the most important revelation of all.
Ingrid Ruthig is currently completing a manuscript of poetry, and editing both a book of essays and an anthology of short poems. She co-edits Lichen Arts & Letters Preview.

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