Now, I am a fan of Nancy Huston, and I want to get that straight off the bat before I get into a discussion of her most recent novel, Infrared. She’s had a successful career prior to its publication, and was nominated for an Orange Prize for her book Fault Lines, a fabulous work considering family history via a jumping path of ancestry going back four generations, presented in reverse chronology. Despite the unusual presentation and my typical dislike of gimmicks of this nature, Fault Lines was a triumph that intrigued, compelled, and repulsed me at various times. A history of a family, it’s also a story of politics, identity, and history itself. And despite what I found an unpromising beginning, it completely sucked me in.
Which is possibly why I found Infrared to be such a disappointment.
Whereas Fault Lines tells a small part of history through a single family, Infrared traces the experiences of one woman, her elderly father, and his new wife, as they travel through Florence together on what is meant to be a tour of art and history. Frequently frustrated by the slow pace of her father and stepmother (an agonising series of delays and excuses that will irritate the reader as much as the narrator), Rena indulges in frequent fantasies of her lover waiting at home, while photographing things that strike her as beautiful. Perhaps it’s the difficulty of describing visual effects in words, but while I appreciated her desire to photograph only things she could love, rather than take banal holiday snaps, Rena’s descriptions of visual arts, including her own photographs and the art she sees along the way to inspire her, falls flat. Which is a terrible pity, because much of the art is sensational, and Rena’s knowledge of it clearly runs deep.
At the same time, much of the novel deals with Rena’s sexual history, including her sexual awakening, and her teenage knowledge of an affair of her father’s that was eventually to destroy her parent’s marriage. This is clearly tied into her current relationships and perceptions of sex, and while there’s enough sensual material to interest most, I found myself unenthralled by her preoccupation with sex, including with her current young paramour Aziz. Maybe you have to be heterosexual to get the appeal, but I certainly could have done without the visuals of blowjobs, no matter how much she enjoyed giving them.
Where the novel does come into its own is in describing the mood and scene of Italy, a country that feels like it is perpetually caught in the middle ages, growing olives and grapes. It is possible to feel the languidness that seeps into one when driving the hills of Italy in the hot sun, knowing there’s the potential for a few glasses of wine and a siesta with lunch. In the final stages of the novel, there’s more consideration of this lazy holiday feeling, strongly contrasted with an awareness of growing political complications elsewhere. Honestly I would have enjoyed more focus on the laziness of Italy. The jumping back and forth in time and place, adult and childhood memory, and out loud conversations versus those Rena carries on in her head all make the novel hard work. Which is a pity, because I really wanted to love it.