Sunday, 11 March 2012

A Division of the Light: Christopher Burns

This novel is exquisitely written - a masterclass in understated narrative.  It's a clever book and, for the reader, a difficult book - there's already a one star review on GoodReads from someone who had expected it to be a thriller.  A Division of the Light is not about plot - more about ideas - and the characters move on wires manipulated by the necessity of developing those ideas, playing out the central premise of the novel.

Are our lives controlled - are events 'meant' - or are we at the mercy of random forces?  When Alice Fell decides to walk down a different street and is mugged, she is photographed by Gregory Pharaoh, also there by chance on his way home from an assignment.  It is the beginning of an obsession, and a collision with the elemental forces that recur like motifs throughout the book.  The patterns in the narrative echo the patterns of light Gregory plays with in his photographs.  How much of what we see is merely illusion?  How do we know what is true?

This is a difficult feat for a writer to bring off - a novel of ideas, a narrative of patterns, dependent on the interplay of three characters who are essentially unlikeable.  Alice is a manipulative ball-breaker who uses her sexual power over men and always stops short of commitment.  Her boyfriend Thomas is so lacking in self-confidence and motivation he has made Alice the whole of his world and in so doing, undermined any security he had left.  Gregory is selfish, egotistical, dispassionate, used to getting exactly what he wants, and holding the world at the other end of his camera lens.  His values are pictorial values.

The onmiscient narrator maintains a distance, wide angle, occasionally zooming in on some small detail - a triangle of light at the base of Alice's throat, the way lead melts and flows like lava from a burning building, the way shadow outlines the anonymous bones in an ossuary.  The narrator, like the photographer, controls what we see.  There are continual parrallels between photography and writing.  Is it legitimate for Gregory to photograph his dying wife?  We feel immediate revulsion, but is that any worse than writing about it?  We need some kind of record to stave off the terrible anonymity of death.

This is the question Alice faces in the ossuary where she goes to help Gregory set up a photo-shoot.  Initially disturbed by the collection of bones, she comes to view it as 'a library of the dead, an assembly of untitled books whose pages had all been ripped out and scattered.  It was both a memorial and a prophecy.  Death was an inescapable solvent that stripped away personality, history and identity.  These people, whoever they were, whichever sex they had been, had left nothing behind but their bones.  Their lives had vanished without an entry in a ledger, or name on a gravestone, and, most cruelly of all, without an image'.

At the end of the novel I was full of admiration - the technique is faultless, the narrative arc perfectly resolved, but it left me curiously unsatisfied.  I would have liked passion, to have warmed to one or other of the characters.  But that is a purely personal response. As Gregory remarks in the book 'passion is no guarantor of truth'.  I suspect that the novel fulfils its author's intentions and it isn't up me to wish it any different.

Christopher Burns has had a rough ride as an author.  Last published in 1996, his five previous novels were celebrated - Whitbread prize novels.   But, like many of us, he was a victim of the mid-list slaughter among publishers and agents.  It is terrible for an author, praised, well reviewed, writing good books and led to believe that they are on the verge of something even bigger, suddenly to find one day, without warning, that agents turn the cold shoulder and publishers no longer want to know you.  The damage this does to a creative ego can't be underestimated.   But Chris has persevered and kept on writing, through all the bad times, and has finally found a small, literary publisher, Quercus, who values what he does.   He is also a superb short story writer (About the Body) and has a chapbook Lexicon recently published by NightJar press.

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