In Paris, the so-called radiant city, Matthew Bowles, freelance journalist, suffers a dark time. Holed up in a bare apartment in the 8th arrondissement, he’s recuperating physically, though not emotionally, from injuries sustained in a shooting in Hebron. His memory of the event is murky, and although the media has deemed him a hero – he may or may not have tried to save a man and his child – Matthew is repulsed by the attention. Unable to work, Matthew reluctantly agrees to write a book “about what got you shot” for which a New York literary agent promises “six figures on spec.” This is the project he tries to get on with in those times when he’s free from depression, free from the panic attacks triggered by certain sounds or crowd situations. More often than not, Matthew is mired in the memories of other war zones – Beirut, Herzegovina, Rwanda, Iraq – where he has worked as a war correspondent. There’s a “sack of skulls” he carries around with him.
Surfacing, as well, are memories of his rural Nova Scotia childhood: a barn on fire, horses trapped. Recollections of his mother – a woman who held on until Matthew got away from home – explain, perhaps, Matthew’s tender regard for Sadia Ferhat, a Lebanese woman who, with her father and brother, runs a restaurant in Matthew’s district. Doing what he can to save Sadia’s son, who is teetering on a life of drugs and crime, Matthew’s life intersects in surprising ways with former colleague Jack Sadler, photo-journalist and ex-mercenary, now living in Paris and also recovering from war trauma. Jack’s presence in Paris is, at first, a comfort. Tough, burly, and resilient, Jack knows how to deal with panic: “‘there’s part of the brain that always lives in the present tense of the trauma …. doesn’t realize that whatever shit happened to you isn’t still happening …. convince your lizard brain that time’s moved on.’” The intersection of these three lives is Davis’s story in The Radiant City, a novel that, like Dante’s Inferno, spirals downward. The Paris underground – literally and metaphorically – teems with betrayal. The authorial compassion of this book is, however, radiant.