Nancy Huston’s tenth novel is as rich, complicated and supple as any of her previous ones. Considering she’s won or been short-listed for many of the prestigious literary awards in both Canada and France, in both English and French, that’s saying a lot.
The heroine of Infrared is Rena, a 45-year-old photographer, raised in Montreal but living and working in Paris. As the novel opens, she’s beginning a week-long visit to Florence with her elderly father, Simon, and her stepmother, Ingrid. She dreads the trip because she can’t bear to be away from her current lover and because she’s always resented Ingrid. As the holiday progresses, we learn how problematic her relationship to Simon is, too.
Following their tourist guide from place to place, there are many references to the treasures they visit, but due to circumstances they miss some of the most famous. Rena finds herself contemplating not the wealth of renaissance masterpieces the city is famous for, but little-known and much less impressive artifacts, including Egyptian archaeological remains.
In fact, nothing about the trip is as Rena had hoped. Her time with Simon is spoiled by the presence of Ingrid, an elderly and completely ordinary woman Rena feels no connection with. She suffers the indignities of waiting for her overtired father, finding food for her ravenous stepmother, and the banalities of their conversations with little grace, and the tension steadily mounts. In the one scene where they’re all finally getting along and enjoying themselves, Rena is surprised rather than pleased.
But it’s what happens in Rena`s head that makes up the bulk of the book. Foremost, she longs to be back home in Paris, working and loving her “husband,” the much younger Aziz, an Algerian reporter working for the same publisher. A few days into the trip, she receives an urgent call from him, demanding that she return immediately to cover a developing story. He doesn’t mention that Paris’ northern suburbs have just erupted into riots protesting the treatment of immigrants. She hasn’t seen any news reports, so Rena stays put.
Like the late American photographer Diane Arbus, her hero and frequently referenced in the novel, Rena is a free spirit more interested in the unseen and hidden facets of life, and she uses infrared film to reveal what she only suspects lies right in front of her eyes. Of course she too has hidden depths, including an imaginary alter ego named Subra (Arbus backward) who offers her advice and solace, but also chides, scolds and warns her.
Through memories and conversations with Subra, we learn of Rena’s difficult upbringing, including an abusive older brother, a father complicit in her radical exploration of her sexuality, and her mother’s abandonment of the family. Coupled with her confused relationship with men and sex, her mother’s distance and then absence only reinforces Rena’s unusual behaviour, which continues throughout her life.
As the holiday lurches uncomfortably toward its end, events conspire to ratchet up Rena’s anxiety. Aziz phones several times to convince her to cut her trip short, and then unceremoniously dumps her when she doesn’t. A medical emergency turns the week’s events upside down and, in the end, Rena is left without a lover or a job, and worrying over the potential loss of a parent.
Most of the scenes are short, some only paragraphs long, and Huston weaves back and forth in time, and in and out of Rena’s mind. The novel flows with a thematic coherence built up out of many small and tenuously connected episodes. Huston shows her usual mastery of complicated structure, her wide cultural knowledge and her brilliant, assured portraiture. Though she’s originally from Calgary, she is by now a thoroughly naturalized French novelist and this shows in Infrared in her fearless portrayal of sexuality, her playfulness of form and the ease with which she crosses the boundaries of style, point of view and even grammar.
Michel Basilières is author of the novel Black Bird.