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Man Booker Prize 2004 longlist

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Sixty Lights
Gail Jones


Ion Martea

The photograph, like death, has no future. It lives only in the past, drowned in the story of the frozen image; a short story, an ordinary story, but one which is formed by (un)fortunate writing. Photography assumes in its process the certainty of death, however, and so at some point the writing must stop violently, in its most pulsing state, refusing any chance of redemption.

An album of photographs, Sixty Lights is but an essay on death, and through death Gail Jones celebrates life. Light writing (photo-graph) becomes life writing in this quiet novel from the author of Black Mirror.

Lucy Strange is the novel's protagonist: an Australian girl living in the late nineteenth century, who loses her parents at the fragile age of eight, moves to London, and then to India where she learns photography, only to return to London and die at the age of twenty two, leaving behind a plethora of photographs and a small girl to carry her memory in the future.

Sixty Lights is not a novel of intrigue and suspense. Nothing extraordinary happens in the short life of this ordinary Strange girl, the knowledge of which can change our understanding and appreciation of the book. Jones's novel lacks a dénouement; nor is she interested in having one. The only end is death, and its certainty is hardly surprising at the moment of its happening, especially because it happens sixty times. Almost everyone and everything dies at the end of each chapter: Lucy's mother, her father, her uncle, loneliness, virginity, love, passion, pain, desire, hope, and the list continues till we get to Lucy, and the novel itself. Its repetitive structure is at first distracting, the morbid setting becoming both clichéd and off-putting. Only in time do we realise that there is a mathematical formula at work there. Each chapter is constructed with intense visual acuity to obtain a complete photograph, a melancholic reminder of lost times, and cultural traditions of the generation of Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens, a generation we look up to as the zenith of classical art.

Reading the novel one cannot get over the feeling of perfection and unexplained nostalgia for a world none of us ever inhabited. Each character appears almost flawless, each of their vices being portrayed as a natural occurrence, an accepted norm. The gestures, the words, seem often forced by our desire to reconstruct that world, to ensure that the 'fairy-tail' (despite its sombre setting) is kept alive and admired.

But does it work? Partially. The social aspect, despite the richness of the presentation, fails to bring the insight into the period the author had intended to deliver. Firstly, there is Lucy Strange, who is mocked by her ordinary existence and the emancipatory role she is given to perform. We can almost feel Gail Jones' desire to make out of her heroine a leading example for feminist campaigners in the Victorian era, and we get to a point at which Lucy becomes more of a post-Freudian, 1970s feminist, full of passion and lust, unashamed of her role as a single teenage mother, free to chose her man and career. Secondly, there is a repressed homosexual in Isaac Newton (the scientist under whose protection Miss Strange finds herself in India) who talks about his male object of affection with a confidence that even DH Lawrence would envy. And thirdly, there is a fascination with the Indian culture, one that EM Forster would both applaud and be critical of. Despite the obvious intention of making Lucy a woman with no notion of the class system, she is still no Mr Fielding, courageously stepping out and rejecting her upbringing. Instead, she remains only a spectator, helpless at producing a real change.

Arguably, however, it is harsh to criticise the book in those terms. Gail Jones, through Lucy, can't give us more than a glimpse of a world that passed so long ago. She is the photographer, and much more thrilled by the beauty of the light, than by social injustice. As long as she has her art beside her, the world ceases to matter, everything becomes but a simple photograph. Bioluminescence is what she strives to capture, and she finds it in everything, at every corner. Once the images are imprinted for eternity, all that remains is the memory of light.

A novel about love and friendship, about sorrows and happiness, Sixty Lights encompasses life in a most ordinary manner. It is not a psychological or philosophical treatise on human existence, nor is it a social-political critique, though it strives at those from time to time. It is just a glimpse of reality, but one seen through our own desires and conceptions. Photography offers Gail Jones that special advantage of capturing abbreviated sequences of life and, in the short existence of Lucy Strange, the author has found an excellent way of celebrating the thing we all cling to for better and for worse - our inexplicable desire to go on living.

 

 
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