I have followed her career with some interest and appreciation for years, influenced I must admit by her birthplace — let’s face it, we don’t have a lot of Calgary-born writers publishing in French. My high-school French is not up to reading her in the original, but I have found the English translations to be of consistent worth — Fault Lines would rank as my favorite.
So I was looking forward to her latest, Infrared (published in 2010 in French and this fall in English), with some anticipation. The broad description of the book held promise that Huston was again venturing into unconventional literary territory: Rena Goldblatt is a successful photographer, whose speciality is infrared images — the negative-like pictures emphasizing temperature patterns rather than conventional forms. The setting for the novel is a seven-day trip to Tuscany with her 70-year-old father and her stepmother — an excursion which turns out to be one of those ideas that are much better in the planning than in the actual experience.
Huston uses this structure to produce a literary version of the “infrared” photograph. There is enough conventional narrative that the reader is aware of what is happening as the week unfolds — but bubbling beneath that surface are “hot spots” from both more recent history and Rena’s childhood past that come to dominate the story.
Let’s deal with the conventional story line first. Rena’s father, Simon, is an unsuccessful academic, an acolyte of Timothy Leary (Rena took her first LSD trip at a very early age) who never quite acquired the focus and discipline to really achieve anything, despite grand ambitions. Her stepmother, Ingrid, is much more conventional and, on this trip, very much a stumbling Canadian tourist, not up to the grandeur of historical Florence. Here’s the opening to the trio’s experience of San Lorenzo:
‘Designed by Brunelleschi, the great Renaissance architect,’ Rena hastens to proclaim, having leafed through the Guide bleu on her flight this morning. ‘Look how the sun’s rays light up every square inch of space …’
She can tell Ingrid is disappointed. To her eyes, the church is empty. There’s really nothing to look at — not even any stained-glass windows. Even the Amersterdam Cathedral is more lavishly decorated than this. Yes, thinks Rena, but you don’t understand. Here, instead of being dazzled by ostentation, overwhelmed by fancy ornament or intimidated by dark shadows, man himself is writ large.
Anyone who has taken the Italian grand tour has seen a version of these multi-generational family excursions — while there is an incredible amount to see (too much, actually), the real preoccupation is where they can stop for the next meal, coffee or even just a pleasant bench and some rest. It is not a particularly dramatic story line, but Huston captures it with a touching compassion.
It is during these “rest” periods for the older pair that the hot spots of memory rise in Rena’s mind. One set concerns her relationships, both present and past. She has had four husbands and lovers too numerous to count. Her current lover, Aziz, is an Algerian-born activist and fellow photographer in Paris:
‘Tell me, Aziz,’ I crooned to my sweetheart one evening as he went about covering my face with droll little kisses and gently rolling my clitoris between his fingers as he’s learned to do so well, ‘faithful Muslims who die as martyrs are supposed to be rewarded with ninety-two virgins when they get to heaven…But what do women get? What’s heaven like for Muslim women?’ ‘When a woman gets to heaven,’ Aziz murmured between kisses, ‘she can’t see her husbands other wives anymore. That’s it — no more jealousy.’ ‘Oh, I see. That’s a woman’s paradise: no more jealousy. You mean she can’t even see the ninety-two virgins?’ ‘Especially not them.’ That made me laugh so hard I was unable to come.
As it happens, the Greenblatt family excursion to Italy coincides with the Muslim riots and supression in Paris — not only Aziz, but Rena’s magazine employer, want her back in the city to document the events with her particular kind of photography. Yet again, as they have in the past, family responsibilities, but even more important memories, are imposing on and altering Rena’s present.
All this brings up even deeper memories. Rena’s older brother, Rowan, was a sexual abuser who first attacked her before she was 10 — the abuse continued into her early teens and resulted in a sexually-deformed woman (which we already know from the more recent memories of her relationships). Accompanying her aging and declining father and a stepmother she really does not know well around the spectacles of Italy brings these childhood experiences and their result into an “infrared” focus.
Infrared has its moments and I very much wanted Huston to succeed in delivering on an ambitious premise — I am afraid in the final analysis, at least for this reader, she does not. Rena’s sexual memories became oppressive rather than illustrative and I came to welcome when those sections would finally end and we could get back to observing a couple of elderly Canadians struggling with their attempts to appreciate Italy’s cultural history. As much as I wanted Rena to come to life as a character, she never did.
Do not take that as a rejection of Huston, or even this novel. She is an interesting author who deserves to be read, but if you don’t know her work I’d recommend starting with Fault Lines, Instruments of Darkness (probably her most famous and most-awarded) or The Mark of an Angel instead. Infrared continues her pattern of exploring different forms of the novel; while her journeys have usually worked for me, this one fell short.