Elizabeth Hand’s first foray in YA fiction is not quite a time travel book, or historical fiction, or a bildungsroman, though it has elements of all three sub-genres.
In 1978, young Merle Tappitt is from the middle of nowhere, Virginia, where she lives with her alcoholic father and two younger brothers. She has just gotten a prestigious scholarship to the Corcoran School of Art, located in Washington, DC (the setting of many a Hand novel). She is a young lesbian, and in DC just before and during the burgeoning harDCore (punk) scene. She manages to get kicked out of school, in spite of her talent (mostly due to her lack of preparation and the culture-shock), and breaks up with her manipulative older girlfriend, who happens to be a married art instructor. Merle, who has bratty tendencies but explosive artist talent, becomes homeless, and starts expressing herself through graffiti.
In 1870, Arthur Rimbaud is a fifteen year would-be poet, a rebel without a cause, chaffing at the control that his cold religious fanatic mother holds over him. Before and during the Prussian War, he runs away from home, and goes to Paris several times, meaning to get into the poetry scene there. He manages to get arrested, and at one time, joins in the Paris Commune during the Prussian siege.
The two strands of the book—vivid artpunk memoir and biographical fiction—smash into each other in a clever way when, through mysterious magic, both malcontent teenagers meet . Rimbaud wanders through late 70s Georgetown, and Merle ends up in the Paris commune, both with each other as guides. The parallels and differences between these two soul twins is sometimes humorously highlighted: both are visionary queer art-nerds from the sticks.
Hand’s familiarity with DC’s punk scene comes and Merle’s first person narration is the more lively of the two narrative strands. The Rimbaud sections have a bit of a studied air about them, as if she’s handling the material with kid gloves. When the two young artists met, everything about the book—the language, the dialogue, the lush imagery—is suffused with magic. These are sections are when the prose sings and become flavored with Rimbaud’s visionary poetry.
In the end, this brief novel is more a meditation on Art and Youth than it a traditional YA novel. The ending scene is quite lovely.
As a DC native, it was a hoot to see my hometown through someone else’s eyes. I loved how Hand was enchanted as was by the Rimbaud mythos—the title of this blog, Strange Alphabets, refers to one of Rimbaud’s most famous poems.