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Rena Greenblatt, the fortyish protagonist of Nancy Huston's sensual and disturbing new novel, spends much of the book in mental dialogue with a special friend whom she names Subra. It is not hard to see that this is a backwards homage to Diane Arbus (1923-71), the American photographer of people on the fringes of everyday society. For Rena too is a photographer, whose shows include "Whore Sons and Daughters," "N[o]us," and "Misteries." Their subjects reveal how Rena's mind works, which is the main interest in the book. The first show is just as it says, the families of sex workers. The second is a series of sleeping nudes (the French title is a pun between "nudes" and "ourselves"), "bodies of all ages, colours and sexes, obese and scrawny, smooth and wrinkly, hairless and hirsute [...] every one of them beautiful." The third shows "close-ups of young men's faces twisted with hatred. Moving in... closer and closer [...] passing through layer after layer of memory all the way to childhood. It's overwhelming when that starts to show up in the revealing bath."
The revealing bath image might also serve as a description of Huston's narrative method. The frame is Rena's week-long holiday with her aging father and stepmother in Florence and Tuscany. Rena (or Huston herself) has a magnificent eye, and her encounters with artworks, famous or otherwise, sent me repeatedly to Google Images to check her observations for myself. But the main substance of the book lies in the reflections they trigger and layers of memory that are gradually peeled back. José Saramago does something similar in his MANUAL OF PAINTING AND CALLIGRAPHY; it is also the basic principle of WG Sebald's novels, though neither has Huston's sensuality. However, while Huston's observations are as rich as those of either author, her technique soon becomes excessively transparent. Before long, the ostensible story virtually disappears, as Rena darts back in time at the slightest pretext -- a fleeting thought followed by "Tell me, says Subra," or linkages so blatant as to be almost absurd: "Again the toilet flushes and a heavy-built man comes out of the bathroom, zipping up his fly. Rena thinks of all the flies she has undone in the course of her long love life...".
Rena may pay homage to Diane Arbus by reversing her name as Subra, but the surname of the other huge influence on Huston's writing is irreversible: Anaïs Nin. I don't think I have every read a book in which a woman is so frank about sex; Rena's current project is to photograph the faces of her lovers in infrared as they climax. Her verbal descriptions too are explicit, sensual, and above all joyous. In addition to her many lovers, Rena has had four husbands, all Francophone, all of other races (Haitian, Cambodian, Senegalese, and Algerian), and all loved passionately at least for a while. But as the layers of memory peel away, we become aware of events in Rena's childhood that are more than titillatingly precocious but clearly traumatic; the book darkens considerably as it goes on. Meanwhile, the 2005 race riots are breaking out in the Paris suburb where Rena lives, a distant outcome of the anger recorded in her "Misteries." Nancy Huston (who wrote the book originally in French, then made her own translation), brings the threads together into a climax of sorts, but leaves most of them untied. However, this is not a novel you read for the story, but for the vision of its central character, and that really is extraordinary.