Infrared by Nancy Huston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I initially finished Infrared I thought it was simply OK. But then I spent some time thinking about the book. Infrared is a novel that needs to sit with you and stir in your gut.
The story involves a 45-year-old woman, Rena Greenblatt, as she takes her father and stepmother on a trip to Florence, Italy. Rena, a photographer specializing in infrared photography of damaged subjects, takes along her camera not so much to take pictures, but to stave off her anxiety about the trip.
Soon the reader realizes that Rena also carries a lot of emotional baggage, and has brought her alter ego/imaginary friend, Subra along for the trip. The invention of Subra allows Rena to have internal conversations about concerns, memories and events. It is a bit of an unsettling technique: It does underline Rena’s mental stability, or lack thereof. “Subra” is an anagram for “Arbus”, Diana Arbus, a Jewish-American photographer of the unusual. By the end of the novel, Rena comments: “What had she endured as a little girl, growing up in New York in that wealthy Jewish family whose privileges she detested? What evil had she been forced to construe as good, as irrevocably that she would spend the rest of her life blurring the nuances between the two?” (257). Change “New York” to “Montreal” and the same comment could be said about Rena.
Also mentioned is Lee Miller, who, at seven, was raped by a family friend and contracted gonorrhoea. Her vagina and uterus were subjected to acid baths for treatment. Miller went on to be a model for Man Ray and later a noted photographer of the Holocaust.
The stories of two female photographers are complemented by the fact that Rena’s paternal side of the family were almost entirely annihilated by the Holocaust. Her Grandmother Rena “sank into a permanent stupor” (45) after she saw the photographs of the camps. The damage becomes inherited.
Of course, Rena is a photographer of difficult subjects. It seems the inspiration for the novel comes from a wondering about what drives seemingly privileged female photographers to choose horrors and freaks as their subjects.
And there’s the sex. Oh yes, the sex. What happened to Lee Miller is a hint of what happened to Rena. There’s enough titillation in the book to get you started and keep you going.
One of the difficulties I had with the book is liking Rena. Her proud promiscuity is a turn off, and it’s also distancing to have a narrator who admits to making things up. Ultimately, I felt sorry for Rena; it’s painful to watch her self-destruct. The graphic aspects of this book will be difficult for some readers. For myself, I think I had wanted and expected a sunny story because it was set in Tuscany. This book is not that. It is gritty, disturbing, and unstable.
What I liked about the book wasn’t so much the characters and the story (why is Rena on this trip, anyway?) but where the novelist directed me to look: at artists and their art. It’s helpful to look at the art work or research the artists that Huston mentions in Infrared. However, that said, the references could take the reader away from the novel and to look at what perhaps inspired it.
Infrared is about layers, illusions, and emotional resonance, both for the characters and the reader. It needs to be re-read with an infrared “lens”. Rena uses this technique when photographing her subjects to strip away the surface and see the pain underneath. Rena wants to see other’s pain because it’s what she feels so much. Rena is stripped of everything by the end of the book: job, boyfriend, and father. She is left as vulnerable as she was as a child.
I encourage you after reading this book to let it settle. Then take the time to peel back the layers, examine the novel’s references on the internet, and cross-fertilize the information that has been presented to you.
Huston, Nancy, Infrared. Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2011. Print.
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