Sixty Lights by Gail Jones
If you're asked to think of an emotional Victorian heroine called Lucy who horrifies society by engaging with the locals, and you'll probably turn to EM Forster's Lucy Honeychurch. But this is where the similarity to Lucy Strange of Booker long-listed Sixty Lights ends. In Jones' novel, the Australian born protagonist is an orphan. After her mother dies in childbirth and her father commits suicide, Lucy and her brother Thomas are moved first to her grandfather's house, and then travel to London with grey sheep of the family Uncle Neville, before voyaging alone to India. Her short and troubled life is characterised by her stoicism, curiosity and an ability to see the world through photographs. She's been described by critics as a character who stays with you long after the novel has finished. Perhaps this is because Jones keeps so many of Lucy's inner thoughts wrapped away, leaving the reader plenty of room to make the imaginative leaps which the novel inspires.
The opening chapters are beautifully, and indulgently written. Lucy is woken up in the night a dream of violent events that day. A man fell from a building while carrying a mirror. His body and its reflection lie fragmented on the ground. Taking a cue from its opening passage, the novel itself is fragmented in structure: it's not until much later in the novel that we find out where this death occurs. First we move back to Lucy's childhood - to the watershed moment when she and Thomas are left to fend for themselves. Shaped by circumstance, Lucy and Thomas are stoical, independent and closely bound together from an early age. Jones portrays the relationship between them best in the earlier chapters. By the end of the novel Thomas has become somehow sidelined, as if the author is trying to hold too many strands together and has let a few slip.
While the detail of research shines off the page, some of the sections read like background research notes rather than scenes that move the plot forward or explain characters. It would take a dedicated reader not to skip through some of the 'London by photographs' passages. The theme of photography is clearly interesting to, and made interesting by the author, but it doesn't drive the plot in the same was as, for instance, show business in Sarah Waters' Tipping The Velvet. Instead, it's the family saga that moves the plot along. Although you might question what aspects of plot and character are actually gained from setting the novel in this era rather than present-day, Sixty Lights is a slow-moving but enjoyable insight into Victorian phantasmagoria.