The Radiant Road (Penguin Young Readers 2016) is a recent YA fantasy novel by Katherine Catmull. Our protagonist is fourteen-year-old Clare, daughter of a traveling geologist. After moving about the United States, Clare and her father return to her birthplace of Ireland, back into the ancient, mysterious stone home in which she was born, where her mother’s ashes lay.
I was immediately drawn into the evocative narrative about Clare and “the Strange”. The Strange is also known as the fairy world, although Clare detests the childish word ‘fairy’ and doesn’t want to believe in fairies. But the fairy world in Ireland is real to this girl of human and fairy blood – and so is the road into it.
I applaud this book mainly for the beautiful writing. It reads like poetry, with some almost spiritual or philosophical riddles so originally put. I found myself highlighting many passages and rereading them to revel in their beauty. The first half of the story was indeed impossible to put down as Clare, moving through the human world, discovers the makings of the Strange, and begins to piece together the fairy road. However, once we plunge into full-fairy in the second half of the book, I had trouble staying focused. The narrative became a bit wordy and abstract for my tastes, the storytelling too descriptive and slow-moving, making it difficult to become absorbed in any action sequences or feel a sense of danger or urgency in the conflicts. Especially when any story I’m reading moves into the realm of dreams and symbolism, I tend to lose interest.
I did like the world-building and Catmull’s take on the human world needing the strange magic of the fairies, and the fairy world needing to be unsettled by human love and change. As one of the characters explains it: “Humans – caught inside the churning changes of growth and decay, loss and love – humans long toward the perfect, Timeless world of art and dreams. But we who live in that austere, varying world, we long toward transformation and love” (p. 84). I also enjoyed Catmull’s philosophy on the inner “beast” (“No, you can’t be careful with what you want. Wanting isn’t a pet who stays at your heels; it’s a wild animal” [p. 180]). Fans of Jungian psychology, dream interpretation, Irish fairy lore, and poetry will adore this novel.
“That was the miracle of writing, how she did not know what she knew, until she began to write it.” -p. 33
“‘The sea is the beginning and end of all roads, if you travel long enough.'” -p. 41
“To fly, you open your arms and fall, heart first, trusting the wind to bear you up. That’s what the birds do.” -p. 82
“…beauty is in what’s true.” -p. 177
“‘Never look for what you should want and desire, but what you do want and desire… What you desire will appear, no matter how you try to erase or recolor it.” -p. 181
“…to make in your world, where the makings change and decay and die, and are so much richer for that.” -p. 186
“Each piece of each dream or making is a version of ourselves.” -p. 211
“Oh, and everyone is made of stars…” -p. 276
“Trees were the first makers, the first of all… We made this world. We take air and light and bring it underground, and turn it into food and life. Then we give our makings to the world.” -p.279
“…you can only love what you must lose.” -p. 302
“Whatever the world gives me, I bring it deep into my secret roots to make with. Then I bring what I have made out again. In this way, I make a world.” -p. 319
“There is no safety, and so we must touch and be touched, and we must fall and fly.” -p. 333
“Try to see with your self, your self and your beast together, and not your busy, frightened mind.” -p. 346
“…the ocean was the grandmother of the whole world…” -p. 351