If I had to guess where I came across Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive, I’d say it was probably Maria Popova’s Brainpickings. Only a guess, but it makes a lot of sense and there’s this post to go along with my supposition. Regardless, here’s the short form. Radioactive is a biography of Marie Curie. That is roughly accurate, but thoroughly uninteresting. In addition to being beautiful and beautifully told, this book is the story of Marie Curie, of her discoveries of radium and polonium, and of the legacies of them all.
Redniss begins her first chapter, Symmetry, cleverly and counter-intutively. On the left hand page is information about Pierre Curie, whom, we can pretty safely deduce, will be the husband of Marie. On the right hand page is the first news of Marie Skłodowska. So far so good. Turn the page and a non sequitur, more information about Pierre but written in a way that doesn’t connect to the previous page.
The left hand pages of Symmetry are all Pierre. The right hand pages are all Marie.
Redniss is not always so aggressive about her structure, but it’s smart to make her move in the opening pages because it teaches us that we have to be ready for the next trick, whatever it might be. Throughout her writing, the author locates the parallels between the Curies’ love, lives, and research, and intertwines them from one chapter to the next. It is a tight and smart dramaturgical trick and she doesn’t get carried away with it. She discusses Marie Curie’s first Nobel prize – in physics, with her husband and fellow researcher Henri Becquerel – and how Alfred Nobel made his fortune from which he could dispense philanthropic cheer via his development of dynamite. Similarly, Redniss notes, the Curies’ discovery of radium and its use as a tool for treating cancer is also the foundation of the knowledge that will bring us the atomic bomb.
Then there’s the artwork.
“Cyanotype” is a photographic processing technique that results in a distinctive blue tint – blueprints! – and is the basis of Redniss’s work, although she goes on to paint and add to the basic backdrop throughout. The results are washes of bright color that often as not echo the content of the associated text. Or in the example above, the text on the right mirrors the positive space of the portrait on the left.
Not to be leave anything to someone else’s choices, she further designed her own font for the book. The details of the artwork and the design are included at the end of the book.
I’m trying to keep in mind that all of the reasons I think this book is amazing and fantastic are the exact same reasons you might find it pretentious or cloying or overwrought or overly complicated. For me, it is a marvel of nonfiction storytelling that honors not only the subject’s chronological life, but also the fallout of that life (Redniss’s pun, not mine) and how one person (or one discovery) can ripple out forward. The metaphorical and symbolic possibilities of the artwork further enhance the writing by suggesting ideas and details without claiming them as written text would have to do, albeit perhaps with a caveat here and a caveat there.
This is probably a work that will divide its readership quickly and easily. If you don’t care for the artwork, you’ll be turned away from the text. The structure is the next hurdle, but I’m willing to bet that if you embrace the first, you’ll embrace the second.
Lauren Redness with a 12 minute TED talk on her technique and approach.