Nancy Huston is something of a biographical curiosity and an ever bigger bibliographical one. She was born and reared in Calgary, and educated at elite institutions in New York and Paris. (Roland Barthes supervised her master’s thesis, on the subject of profanity.) She’s published nearly 50 books, if you include works for children and plays. For the most part she writes her novels in French for the European and Quebec markets, then translates them herself for the anglophone world. Despite winning awards both here and abroad, she has never had the reputation she deserves in Canada. Infrared ought to be a step toward correcting this.
When Rena Greenblatt, a photographer whose genre is infrared portraiture, makes her way to a hotel in Florence, the manager tells her that her parents have already arrived. One half of the elderly couple is indeed Rena’s natural father, an insufferably pedantic Montreal scientist and former disciple of Timothy Leary; the other, Ingrid, a dour and unsophisticated Dutchwoman, is actually Rena’s stepmother. Rena doesn’t bother to correct the small error, “having not the slightest wish to open that can of worms, that Pandora’s box, that raft of Medusa;” instead she “holds her tongue in Italian, smiles in Italian, nods in Italian, and strives to radiate the serenity to which she ardently aspires. The truth is that she’s been dreading this moment for weeks.”
Her dread is well founded. The family has been hatefully dysfunctional ever since her older brother was shunned for abusing her when she was a child (she’s now 45). The ambient bitterness hardened when one of her father’s affairs provoked a divorce. Now it’s Simon Greenblatt’s 70th birthday, and Rena has left her home and her lover in Paris to take on the thankless role of clan leader on a tour of Tuscany.
Readers expecting a novel on the order of Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt will be disappointed, though in Huston’s telling the details of the journey are often unexpectedly hilarious in a grotesque kind of way. Luggage gets stolen, cars get stolen, communications become confused, cultures clash, and tempers flare. All these tragic mishaps are woven into what, viewed at a simplistic level, is a solid travel narrative. But none of the above begins to suggest what a finely written and well-purposed novel this is.
Huston builds her main character with tiny, sable-hair brushstrokes, one thin layer at a time. Rena has had four husbands and a lengthy list of lovers, both male and female. She is not a sex addict: she is simply drawn, immediately and deeply, to certain individuals in what I can describe only as a secular search for redemption. Sometimes she is the dominant partner, sometimes not. In any case, photography is often closely tied to her sexuality. When looking through the viewfinder “she can see what escapes her gaze the rest of the time.”
She’s often been led, or has led others, into érotisme noir. But while Infrared is far more candid, detailed, and au courant about sex than mainstream Canadian fiction usually dares to be, it mercifully lacks the essential ingredient of pornography. What makes pornography truly pornographic is the way the characters undergo all manner of bizarre, brutal, dehumanizing, and even gory ordeals, only to emerge at the end not having changed one iota as human beings.
Rena’s latest lover is a French-born Algerian named Aziz, a social activist and journalist, who lives in one of the trackless and hopeless immigrant suburbs of Paris that are the future and fear of most big European centres. He is eager for her to return to document the bloody and destructive riots that have just broken out there. She delays returning because her father, who has been experiencing mild symptoms of dementia, is diagnosed with brain cancer. She makes peace with him and with the past, while losing the love of Aziz and whatever future they might have had together.
I’ve failed utterly to convey just how compelling this novel is. Huston uses a number of different methods of portraying dialogue. The way she controls the pace so firmly, while varying it frequently, creates a rhythm that draws the reader inexorably along. The second half of the book has a less frenzied tonal quality than the first, as against all odds – and usually without the principals realizing it – relationships become more stable and people come to understand the importance of emotional triage.