Twenty years ago, no broadsheet harangue on "the state of the novel" could fail to include some slight mention of Christopher Burns. The Flint Bed (1989) brought him a Whitbread shortlisting. There followed a terrific alpinist's epic, The Condition of Ice (1990), and a slightly lower-key Egyptian drama, In The Houses of the West (1993). Come the mid-1990s, the books began to dry up, and A Division of the Light has the distinction of being his first novel for a decade and a half.
Burns's early outings turned on their psychological sleight-of-hand. People and their preoccupations were what mattered to him: backdrop and incidentals could fade into dust. His new work retains these qualities while adding an extra layer of deviousness. It opens with a robbery on a London street, in which a woman, the all-too ominously named Alice Fell, is divested of wallet and mobile phone by a pillion-borne mugger. The attack is witnessed by camera-toting Gregory Pharoah, who, such is his professional fervour, can't resist reeling off a file of snaps before coming to the rescue.
To the symbolism of Alice's name can be added the prefigurative rasp of "a sudden noiseless flash of summer lighting" that concludes their first meeting. A second signpost declares itself in the next chapter when Greg, despatched to Europe to photograph a peasant girl who claims to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary, is informed – via the interpreter – that "you do not have to live your life this way". Back in London he begins his campaign to add Alice to the file of previous conquests whose destiny, once their portrait has been filed, is to exist in his memory merely as representations of themselves.
Unlike the tribe of discarded mistresses, and Gregory's dead wife, Alice proves to be well up to her potential seducer's fighting weight, able to manipulate the photo sessions to her own advantage and use the experience to bolster some of her private myths. Since adolescence, she has "been convinced that she was destined for excitement, progress and revelation". One fairly predictable revelation is how little she cares for her downbeat archaeologist boyfriend Thomas, who, thrown out of the flat, goes off to commit suicide in the wild. The recurring natural phenomenon that – literally – blows her and Greg apart on the trip to dispose of Thomas's ashes is, again, merely symbolic. Wily Alice has already made her dispositions and decided that "she no longer wanted to sleep with Gregory".
A mentally (and physically) damaged Greg ends up back in the vision-seer's village, radically transformed. Novels about photographers and their sitters have a habit of indulging themselves in mundane reflections on the relationship between lens and subject. With its line about pictures being the only mementoes of us that survive, A Division of the Light is not altogether free of this vice. But its psychological gaze is quite unsparing and, with the exception of the lightning bolts, maintained without special effects.
DJ Taylor's new novel is 'Secondhand Daylight' (Constable & Robinson)Reuse content