Infrared by Nancy Huston

I’ve been curious about the novels of Nancy Huston for some time, thanks to the enthusiasm of Emma who first put this Canadian author on my radar. Infrared is the latest novel from Huston; it’s the story of Rena, a forty-five-year-old photographer who arranges a holiday for her father and step-mother in Florence. Right away, I was intrigued by the premise as I have a weakness for stories about people on holiday–after all people unmoored from their usual social surroundings and obligations make great subjects for fiction.

The holiday begins with signs of trouble. Seventy-year-old Simon Greenblatt and his second wife, Ingrid arrive from Montreal and check into the Hotel Guelfa in the middle of the night after they “narrowly escaped a tragedy.” In this case, the tragedy involved Simon and Ingrid getting lost and temporarily losing the most important piece of their luggage en route to the hotel. When Rena joins them, arriving from Paris the next morning, the tone for the holiday is set, and for the rest of the week, she’s more or less dragging them from one tourist destination to another. The days are short and frustrating for Rena; Simon and Ingrid often don’t get started until noon and then frequent meal breaks and rests absorb a huge portion of what’s left. All of this empty time for Rena lends itself to contemplation of her past life.

While there’s a sense that Simon and Ingrid operate at an entirely different speed to Rena, there are also different types of discourse taking place in this triangular relationship . There’s an insider discourse between Simon and Ingrid which excludes Rena, but then Rena and her Timothy Leary worshipping father also have a way of speaking to one another which excludes Ingrid. As for the words which pass between Ingrid and Rena, well they’re loaded with disapproving innuendo. Here’s Rena ordering for Simon and Ingrid in a cafe:

“But …you speak Italian!” exclaims Ingrid.

No, not really, it’s just that … communication’s so much easier between strangers.

“Easy to be a ployglot,” says Ingrid, pursuing her reflection on Rena’s linguistic gifts. “when you’ve been married to a whole slew of foreigners and travelled to the four corners of the world for your profession.”

And what of the “slew of foreigners” Rena married? Ingrid’s comment makes her step-daughter sounded like a polygamous transient. She’s been married three times–although when Rena discusses her sex life with Subra, her imaginary doppelgänger, she professes to have been married four times. To be perfectly accurate, Rena lives with her current much younger muslim love-interest, Aziz, who is dealing with his own problems back in Paris. Aziz and Rena are not married yet, and if his mother has anything to say on the matter, a marriage will never take place. Here’s Rena on her choice of husbands:

Fabrice the Haitian, Khim the Cambodian, Alioune the Senegalese, and Aziz the Algerian–were all, thanks to the unstinting generosity of French colonialism, francophones…as, indeed, were my Québecois lovers–all the professors, truck drivers, waiters, singers and garbage men whose t’es belle, fais-moi une ‘tite bec, chu tombé en amour avec toué graced my teenage years…I much preferred them to my anglophone neighbours and classmates–far too healthy for my taste, approaching sex in much the same way as they approached jogging (though usually removing their shoes first), interrogating me in the thick of things as to the nature and intensity of my pleasure, and dashing off to shower the minute they’d climaxed.

That passage should give you a good sense of Rena’s voice and also her attitude towards sexuality (note this is not a book for prudes). Rena takes what she wants, and she also enjoys being taken. She acknowledges that there’s “something hypnotic about a man’s desire,” and this feeling she describes rather interestingly as a mixture of “fright and euphoria.” That a man has “chosen” her provides a “violent thrill,” which always manages to amaze her. An interesting emotional response to sex and desire.

As the book continues, and Rena provides a guided tour of the splendours of Florence to her father and stepmother who are both decidedly underwhelmed by the city’s beauty and much more interested in its pastries, Rena falls to contemplation of the past, and that includes her troubled familial relationship. Gradually, as the narrative moves back and forth between first and third person, we discover the deeply troubled tracks of Rena’s past.

For this reader, and it’s entirely a matter of personal taste, I’ve long since been OD’ed with the sort of revelations regarding Rena’s childhood. Bring on something new, I say, and the new and interesting part of this novel concerns not the major dirty revelations of  Rena’s wee years but instead her difficult relationship with her father (what was he thinking?), her  interest in photography and how her profession ties into her views on sexuality. For Rena, sex is very much about giving and taking. She approaches the act of sex–no matter how often it is repeated or with how many different partners–with awe and the sense of a gift. Perhaps this explains why she loves to photograph her lovers as they climax, and also why she enjoys taking photographs of lover’s lovers–in fact My Lover’s Loved Ones is even the title of one of Rena’s photography shows. I’ll add here that while some of Rena’s memories of sex are real, others are pure fantasy and exercises in the distracting power of seduction.

Rena seems to understand that with the act of sex, one gives a little of oneself away. She literally achieves this with photographic mementos taken with infrared film in order to disguise the features of her lovers, but she is fully aware that while partners share their bodies, sex is also a study in selfishness. She photographs prostitutes who exist for their male clients by renting out their bodies without any of the ramifications of pregnancy or responsibly for the males, and in their turn”few hookers mentioned anything vaguely synonymous with desire or pleasure; all, on the other hand mentioned money.”

There’s a lot going on in Infrared, and while the book’s intelligence and the author’s talent is never in doubt, the book’s two main storylines–Rena shepherding her father and stepmother through Florence and the memories of Rena’s past and career–compete with each other. The former storyline is diminished by Rena’s story, and so it fades from view constantly, almost making the trip a backdrop, and yet right at the end, the novel veers back to the familial relationship with a crisis that is somewhat predictable. For this reader, there was a lot that worked, and a lot that didn’t.

Another review can be found on Kevin’s blog.

Review copy from the publisher.


Filed under Fiction, Huston Nancy

12 responses to “Infrared by Nancy Huston

  1. Brian Joseph

    As you noted Guy, it sound like there is a lot of plot here. Based upon your commentary it sounds like if the book had been longer some of the ideas could have been developed more completely. Once in a blue moon I find that an author should have written more pages. Is that your impression here?

    • I always feel a bit poncey telling writers what they should and shouldn’t do, so I’ll stick with what I wanted to read about. The two main storylines are, of course, tied together, but IMO I would have liked to read more about the relationships between these three people on holiday. Probably narrower if anything. The whole part about her brother was seminal to Rena’s development, but on the other hand it’s a topic that’s been written about a great deal. Dysfunctional families can be very entertaining, but they can also become cliched. You ask yourself what is new and fresh and what is old. I thought the stuff about the brother was something we’ve read a great deal about.

  2. I’m not hugely tempted I admit. I fear family revelations these days more I suspect than the familes in the books themselves do. There are so very many of them.

    • The Old Romantic by Louise Dean made my best of 2011 list and it dealt with familial relationships in a very real, fresh and hilarious fashion. Of course, there were no issues of serious abuse–just the usual old run-of-the-mill abuse that we all get from our families, and I suppose we can identify with to one degree or another.

  3. I don’t know what to think of this at all.
    I’m not very tempted either.
    I’ve read her before and liked what i read but for soem reason this doesn’t even sound like a typical Nancy Huston novel.

    • I have no way of knowing if this is a typical novel by this author or not. Perhaps other reviews will show up by people who’ve read several, and they could judge.

      I find myself this morning thinking of this as two novels.

  4. I’ve read a fair bit of Nancy Huston and would say that Caroline is on the right track — the Florence story line that you like is much more typical of her work. And she likes to add an element of threatening absurd to put some spice in the plot.
    Having said that, dysfunctional families are also frequent in her work — in fact, Fault Lines features several generations of one (and I think Huston carries it off very, very well). In that novel, however, the feature is the central aspect of the narrative. I agree with you that in this one, the storyline of Rena and her brother was more of an annoying distraction than one that added to the book.
    For me, Infrared was okay but would rank in the bottom half of Huston’s work — which is an indication that she is a very good, if underrated, author.

    • Thanks Kevin for weighing in on the subject of how this novel fit into Huston’s body of work. Good to know that you felt the same as me on the sections regarding the brother.

  5. Help! what does this mean “I’ve long since been OD’ed”?

    I’m sorry you didn’t like this one. I haven’t read it (it was a possibility for our book club) but I think she’s a talented writer.
    If I had to choose one for you, I’d say Dolce Agonia. It sounds more like what you enjoy reading. Fault Lines is good, La Virevolte is stunning (not sure it’s translated into English) and of course, I enjoyed her essay on Romain Gary.

    PS: Nice piece of Canadian French in the quote you selected.

  6. Od’ed = overdosed (usually a reference to narcotics but in this case the topic of sexual abuse which I’m fed up with reading about). ie. too much of something that makes you ill, sleepy or bored

  7. French friends have been mentioning Nancy Huston for years, and often seem dumbfounded that I’m not familiar with her. To my knowledge, this is the first time I’ve read a review in English of anything she’s written. I’m prompted by it to have a look, since it sounds like a familiar dividing line – an honestly about sexuality – may be the element keeping her popular in Europe and all but unknown in the U.S.

    • You may be right about the sexuality. I’d never heard of her until Emma, and then it was one of those instances that we readers get when we suddenly realise we haven’t heard of writers we should have.

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