- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: riverrun (1 Mar. 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0857386352
- ISBN-13: 978-0857386359
- Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 2.6 x 24 cm
- Average Customer Review: 13 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,177,897 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
A Division of the Light Hardcover – 1 Mar 2012
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'A masterful novel' Melvyn Bragg. (Melvyn Bragg)
''a moral fable for our time, sharp in its analysis of our failure of emotions and our diffidence and self-serving ... a novel of lasting importance' Carlisle News and Star. (Carlisle News and Star)
'A peculiar, brilliant novel; the ending is extraordinary' Saga.
'As a work of art this novel is stylish and confidently framed - a compelling composition' Writer's Hub.(Writer's Hub)
'A strange, brilliant work' Kazuo Ishiguro. (Kazuo Ishiguro)
'An enigmatic novel that transports the reader somewhere unexpected' New Books Magazine. (New Books Magazine)
'an extra layer of deviousness' DJ Taylor, Independent.
'intriguing' Big Issue.
'If I was a Booker judge, I'd put this on the longlist' Farm Lane Books.(Farm Lane Books)
'Burns captures the photographer's obsession with form and light quite brilliantly and the story gets appealingly strange and dark ... technically it's a very fine piece of writing' Bookbag. (Bookbag)
'Burns' description of the intricate and delicate sword play of seduction is suspenseful and compelling' Red Online. (Red Online)
Engrossing, dense and unsettling, Burns's quiet horror is ingenious' Monocle magazine. (Monocle magazine)
It is unusual to see characters in such a clear, unrelenting light, with no airbrushing, and the casual cruelty of human relationships, is artfully and unflinchingly depicted' TLS. (TLS)
About the Author
Christopher Burns is the author of five previous novels and a collection of short stories. He lives with his wife near the western edge of the English Lake District.
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Are our lives controlled - are events 'meant' - or are we at the mercy of random forces? When Alice Fell decides to walk down a different street and is mugged, she is photographed by Gregory Pharaoh, also there by chance on his way home from an assignment. It is the beginning of an obsession, and a collision with the elemental forces that recur like motifs throughout the book. The patterns in the narrative echo the patterns of light Gregory plays with in his photographs. How much of what we see is merely illusion? How do we know what is true?
This is a difficult feat for a writer to bring off - a novel of ideas, a narrative of patterns, dependent on the interplay of three characters who are essentially unlikeable. Alice is a manipulative ball-breaker who uses her sexual power over men and always stops short of commitment. Her boyfriend Thomas is so lacking in self-confidence and motivation he has made Alice the whole of his world and in so doing, undermined any security he had left. Gregory is selfish, egotistical, dispassionate, used to getting exactly what he wants, and holding the world at the other end of his camera lens. His values are pictorial values.
The omniscient narrator maintains a distance, wide angle, occasionally zooming in on some small detail - a triangle of light at the base of Alice's throat, the way lead melts and flows like lava from a burning building, the way shadow outlines the anonymous bones in an ossuary. The narrator, like the photographer, controls what we see. There are continual parallels between photography and writing. Is it legitimate for Gregory to photograph his dying wife? We feel immediate revulsion, but is that any worse than writing about it? We need some kind of record to stave off the terrible anonymity of death.
This is the question Alice faces in the ossuary where she goes to help Gregory set up a photo-shoot. Initially disturbed by the collection of bones, she comes to view it as 'a library of the dead, an assembly of untitled books whose pages had all been ripped out and scattered. It was both a memorial and a prophecy. Death was an inescapable solvent that stripped away personality, history and identity. These people, whoever they were, whichever sex they had been, had left nothing behind but their bones. Their lives had vanished without an entry in a ledger, or name on a gravestone, and, most cruelly of all, without an image'.
At the end of the novel I was full of admiration - the technique is faultless, the narrative arc perfectly resolved, but it left me curiously unsatisfied. I would have liked passion, to have warmed to one or other of the characters. But that is a purely personal response. As Gregory remarks in the book 'passion is no guarantor of truth'. I suspect that the novel fulfils its author's intentions and it isn't up me to wish it any different.
The bulk of the story involves a burgeoning relationship between successful fifty-something widowed photographer Gregory Pharoah, and a much younger woman, Alice Fell (and yep, those names sure do have meaning).
They meet when Pharaoh witnesses Alice being knocked down (`like a felled tree') and robbed in a London street. Pharoah not only helps Alice, but also takes shots of the incident. He is attracted to her, wants to take more shots of her, and is glad when she makes contact. From the beginning we are told, clunkily perhaps, that Personal Change, that great driver of novels, is on the way for Pharoah. He could do with it - conforming to most of what we are told by writers about photographers (and ageing, successful, single men), he is arrogant, self-centred, emptyish, interested only in surfaces and the briefest of relationships. Alice too is of a type - she believes she is special, has a `need to be unlike other people' and is a grasper of chances, a wannabe-muse, a woman whose ambitions are realised through dalliances with professional and intelligent (if also boring and self-centred) men, and seen, the author tells us, as `mysterious and exciting' (though to the reader she appears a shallow fake and Pharaoh's straightforward, disapproving daughter Cassie sees through her in a minute): she also is a firm believer in fate and `patterns'. She is at the end of a relationship with the besotted Thomas, a young, penniless archaeologist and something of a drifter (again, her involvement with him, given the scale of her ambitions, is confusing).
In the background, meanwhile, in a far away country, a young girl, Little Maria, has been seeing visions of the Virgin Mary (Pharaoh has photographed her). And a London church has been struck by lightning (Pharoah photographs this, too).
The novel initially progresses predictably enough as Pharoah's interest in Alice - he seems to see in her something we cannot, though also very much wants to get his end away - develops into something of an obsession (though not a particularly passionate one: he makes no concessions and suffers no indignities). After much verbal jousting, he eventually persuades her to be photographed naked: snapping away in a scene set in a hotel room (and that lasts for over twenty pages) rumpy-pumpy seems inevitable, but just as a teasing Alice begins sucking Pharoah's nipple (`I like to shock,' she says, hammily) a tragedy strikes `off-camera' and the book veers away on a different tangent.
Another long scene follows, featuring a spurned Thomas as he explores the bleak area of the Lakes looking for little-known archaeological sites. There is much description of landscape and weather and though full marks to Burns for not letting the narrative become yet another amour fou, (this is no `Damage') the novel begins to drag.
The area is then revisited (and with more description of mist, moors, rivers, trees) in a scene featuring Pharoah and Alice, who is already beginning to lose interest in the photographer. It is then that Pharoah experiences an event of almost transcendental revelation that changes his life...or seems to. By the end of the novel, his personal circumstances and belief systems are very different but he is still behaving very much as he behaved with Alice, reaching out for something that isn't there ( a theme also explored in the film 'Blow-Up').
A novel with plenty of - perhaps too many - ideas and often beautifully written, `A Division of the Light' can also struggle to hold interest: unfortunately, we don't care quite enough about the stories of what are less than compelling, often-seen characters.
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