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Infrared By Nancy Huston

An ambitious novel of passions and ideas gets under the skin of its rootless heroine

Nancy Huston was born in Canada, brought up in New York and, as a student, was supervised in Paris by Roland Barthes. Her latest novel expresses elements from these disparate experiences as it journeys through the mysteries of the Italian Renaissance and the insistent memories of a destructive liberal, Jewish family.

Infrared, like her bestselling novel Faultlines, was originally written in French and translated by the author. Huston has a raw psychoanalytic style. Most refreshing in her jagged storytelling is the interplay between Jewish secularism, French radicalism, and post-Seventies American feminism. The narrative starts in the "American abroad" genre, following photographer Rena Greenblatt on her travels to Florence with Simon, her geriatric father, and Ingrid, her Dutch stepmother.

Rena is a middle-aged woman in love with fellow journalist Aziz, a Muslim Arab. As a photojournalist, her speciality is infrared: through this technique she seeks to capture what the human eye cannot.

After sex with a Turkish pick-up she zones under his skin with her forensic technique. Her reward for intimacy is his image in her lens. But although the book is full of erotic adventures, dreams and political questions, Huston is most absorbed by the relationship between father and daughter, and their shared secret. Infrared has the appearance of a modern Renaissance intrigue but its core is that of a Freudian detective story. The villain at its heart is the hell that is family.

Huston plays with father-daughter relationships on several levels. American Jewish dissidence is juxtaposed with the power of Italian Renaissance artists. Who are the great men that shape us? Leonardo? Michelangelo? Our fathers? Galileo's daughter sought solace in a convent. But Simon, an admirer of Timothy Leary, is no Galileo and his daughter prefers jouissance to Jesus. Rena chooses a free life in Europe, unfettered by American puritanism. But she doesn't allow any simple America-versus-Europe dialectic.

Huston complicates her central character in two ways. First, she gives Rena an alter ego: Subra (as in photographer Diane Arbus, inverted). The invented "friend" from childhood is an adult suicidal twin. This allows her to give backstory and explore trauma.

She also creates a character who is rootless. The Canadian-American Rena is a francophile intellectual and artist. However, she is also a Jew ignorant of her own culture, in exile from family, community, history and the modern France she inhabits. The underlying tension between these intertwining worlds hides a memory so shameful that it cracks the narrative arc and explodes the coolness of much of the writing.

Although the book is short, it has an epic quality which mixes fact and fiction. Infrared sprawls across the Atlantic, and the decades, and yet has a thrilling emotional cohesion. Huston's prose is magnetic. This is daring writing which pushes the novel of ideas into a new world.

 

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