At school, it was always the quiet ones who concerned me. In whole class discussions – even in small group discussions with carefully chosen participants with empathy and patience – the students who would take forever to make any contribution used to worry me. These were smart, thoughtful children, often capable in non-verbal activities of producing original ideas in creative ways. But in the rough and tumble of a classroom or a playground, their habit of thinking long and hard while we waited for what seemed to be a forthcoming response only to have them lapse into an impenetrable silence, made things difficult. What would become of them in a workplace, I used to wonder, and how would their relationships work out?
Gretchen Shirm’s debut novel Where the Light Falls features a character like this. Andrew has solved the workplace problem by becoming a notable photographer. He works his own hours – free from routines, suits and deadlines – and by moving from Australia to Berlin he has been able to build a career that doesn’t have to include photographing cat food or weddings. He’s not wealthy, but enough art lovers buy his photographs for him to have solo exhibitions.
He has a nice girlfriend too. She’s a dance teacher called Dom (Dominique) and she wears bright and colourful hats that are a cry of protest in the grey Berlin streets. But – consistent with Andrew’s interest in the honesty in broken things – she is wounded by her experience as a dancer never having quite got the break she wanted. Andrew admires the way she can talk about failure. He doesn’t seem to be able to talk about anything.
We learn as the story progresses that Andrew hasn’t been able to communicate about anything that’s important to him. He gets an email about the unexplained disappearance of an old girlfriend called Kirsten that he had abandoned without explanation, and – without really explaining to Dom, or to the gallery about to mount a major exhibition of his work – he flies back to Sydney to find out more about it. The reader learns that, in childhood, Andrew never asked his mother how his father died, and he had never told her that he had continued to see this girlfriend for sex even after they had split up. So he doesn’t really explain to her why he is there, and he doesn’t tell her about his inconclusive contacts with Kirsten’s family.
Something else he hasn’t told the art gallery is that he doesn’t yet have enough photos for the looming exhibition, but by chance in a Sydney playground he comes across a child with a lopsided smile and (somewhat unconvincingly) the mother agrees to let him take photos of her. Andrew realises that he has caught something special in his photos of Phoebe, but then hesitates (as we knew he would) to use them in the exhibition. By now he’s not just putting his career at risk by messing around the gallery manager, he’s risking his relationship with Dom who is (understandably) puzzled and irritated by his enigmatic silences about why he has deferred his return to Berlin.
The story hits another credibility hurdle when the inquest takes place six weeks after Kirsten’s disappearance. For reasons that are obvious, coronial inquests don’t take place a mere six weeks after a disappearance, especially not when there was no witness who saw what happened and no body has been found. Even less likely is that a memorial service would be held so soon; families tend to hold onto hope long after it is rational. As it became more clear that Kirsten was a disturbed young woman, I kept expecting her to turn up after having faked her disappearance as an attention-getting device. Or perhaps contacting her mother with news that she had found a new man, one with a more decisive personality and more cheerful to live with.
As a portrait of a certain type of personality, Where the Light Falls succeeds with clear insights. Behaviours that look inexplicable are revealed to have reasons, and a man who seems to be thoughtless and cavalier about the emotions of other people is shown to be anything but. Shirm’s use of metaphor is beautifully controlled, with examples that reinforce the ‘broken things’ theme: Andrew walks on a carpet the colour of eggshells (p.224) and the heavy thud of a jackhammer working through cement (p.123) is in the background as he has a conversation with an old friend. Shirm writes evocatively about the way Andrew frames what he sees as an artist does, and she shows the longing Australians often have, to see the great works of art that are for us so far away:
Since he’d been back in Sydney he’d already visited all the galleries he used to see in Darlinghurst and Surry Hills. He’d been to the museums but he’d found nothing he could stand in front of and lose himself inside. What he would give now to see a Rembrandt. On his last visit to the Rijksmuseum, when he’d travelled to Amsterdam from Berlin for a group show, he had finally worked out what it was he loved about Rembrandt’s paintings. It was his sparing use of light. He spent hours standing in front of paintings, perfectly still, allowing them to seep inside him.
The darkness of them, the paint thick, coating the canvas like molasses, the emphasis placed on people, on their expressions, the way they looked at one another and out of the frame. The artist had used light to illuminate people’s faces and offer a glimpse into their thoughts. A painter he’d met at an artist’s residency had said the reason Rembrandt’s paintings had that darkness to them was because he primed his canvases with black paint. He wondered sometimes what Rembrandt would have made of a camera. He had the sensibility of a photographer, the same feeling for light. (p. 254)
Nevertheless, the book suffers from its rather maudlin storyline and claustrophobic characterisation. Death and damaged people permeate the atmosphere. Andrew’s frailty dominates the characterisation so much so that few of the other characters seem more than shadows. His quest to interrogate his past at the risk of his present doesn’t seem fully resolved – and that’s the risk with a novel like this. Having invested so much in one character, the reader is torn between wanting him to sort himself out and knowing that with his personality it’s unlikely that he will. The writing about photography as art was engaging, but ultimately I found myself waiting for more, as I used to do with those kids at school.
The cover? Don’t get me started…
See also Candida Baker’s review at the SMH.
Author: Gretchen Shirm
Title: Where the Light Falls
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin
Available from Fishpond: Where the Light Falls