The Radiant Road
Author Katherine Catmull elegantly summons a fairy-tale timelessness for this YA story of teen anxieties, fairies, and creativity
Reviewed by Rosalind Faires, Fri., Jan. 22, 2016
Sometimes when we talk about The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, we act as though these are very old books, but 1937 is hardly ancient history, so that feeling cannot be derived only from the time in which they were written. Nor can you put the blame on the time period in which the books are set; there are plenty of medieval-esque fantasy novels that we rightly treat as the products of contemporary writers. Rather, that pervasive eternal vibe around the stories of Bilbo and Frodo seems to derive from a potent cocktail of Tolkien's ability to mine the collective consciousness for characters and narratives with which we all have some familiarity, his thoughtful reinvention of those concepts, and gorgeous, old-fashioned language.
With The Radiant Road, Katherine Catmull elegantly summons that same fairy-tale timelessness, that gentle déjà vu that maybe we heard this tale as a bedtime story once when we were very, very small even when we know we are reading it for the first time. The second novel by this award-winning Austin stage actor – the follow-up to her enchanting Summer and Bird – follows the motherless, displaced Clare, a girl on the precipice of her teenage years, as she travels to Ireland with her father to return to the house she was born in – inside of which grows a tree that her mother's family has had guardianship of for generations. But there's a boy and an entire strange and thrilling land on the other side of that tree, which will demand that Clare face her fears to preserve the link between worlds that gives the fairies the ability to love and humans the ability to dream and create.
With compassion but unflinching detail, Catmull conjures the anxieties of being 14: the desperation to fit in with your peers, the incomprehensibility of your first crush, the ache and confusion of seeing a parent as vulnerable for the first time, how self-consciousness creeps in and can, if you're not careful, rob you of the joy of creativity and play. The last of these is of paramount importance in The Radiant Road: Above all else, the novel's fairies revere "making," which encompasses everything from transfiguration to thinking up nursery rhymes. The grandeur of Clare's struggle to save two worlds is mirrored by her smaller struggle to self-identify as a writer. It's rare to see a Hero's Journey supplanted by an Artist's Journey, and the switch cannot be anything but deeply appealing to anyone who's ever excused their paintings or sketches or theatrical work or poetry or first draft of a novel as "just a hobby" in the schoolyard or at a cocktail party.
Clare wavers on whether or not to share the poetry she writes with others, but Catmull does not hesitate to light up the page with her considerable imagination and artistry, placing impeccable turns of phrase throughout the book with the joyful liberality of Julia Child with sticks of butter. Not only is the conception of fairies unique here, but the richness with which they and their abilities are described transports the reader without bogging down pace. All this complexity of writing distinguishes The Radiant Road as a worthy literary challenge for young readers and something no adult need be ashamed to read in the break room. The lyricism cannot help but encase anyone in a story that feels almost ancient but is altogether new.
The Radiant Roadby Katherine Catmull
Dutton Books, 368 pp., $17.99