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Infrared by Nancy Huston


Published by Grove Press/Black Cat on July 3, 2012

Infrared is a contemplation of love, sex, family, and survival, but it is fundamentally a gradually developing snapshot of Rena Greenblatt. Over the course of a weeklong vacation in Tuscany with her father (Simon) and her father's wife (Ingrid), Rena comes into focus. Nancy Huston builds Rena's life by layering opinions upon memories until she becomes whole, as crisp and detailed as the photographs she takes. Rena is an introspective snob, a sensitive woman tormented by guilt, a free-thinking photographer who captures the heat of sex using infrared film. Her running commentary -- thoughts often triggered by her observation of art and architecture -- touches upon religion, genitalia, male sexual performance, prostitution, pornography, photography, beauty (which she feels compelled to "smother with erudition"), motherhood, sodomy, and the geographical history of sexual violence. Rena's opinions as much as her memories give breadth and depth to her character.

Rena's memories are far from pleasant. She has a complicated relationship with her father (a former disciple of Timothy Leary). Rena's mother (a feminist lawyer) died under circumstances that still cause Rena grief. Rena's brother abused her during her childhood. Rena tells us that infrared film captures warmth, the ingredient missing from her childhood. At the age of 45, Rena has had a multicultural assortment of husbands and lovers. She also has a long-standng internal voice, an alter-ego named Subra, with whom she is in constant conversation.

By using infrared film, Rena believes she is capturing an invisible world, "the hidden face of reality." It falls to Ingrid to remind Rena that her photography reveals only half the truth. Ingrid argues that Rena deliberately omits the pleasant, not just from her photography but from her life. While Rena's erotic memories and fantasies -- never far removed from her thoughts -- might fairly be regarded as agreeable (some of them, at least), Ingrid has a point. Perhaps with good reason, Rena is not a particularly happy person, and it isn't clear that she ever will be.

Huston has a gift for crafting unexpected sentences. There is, in fact, nothing predictable about Infrared. The novel's exploration of sexuality and "the theatre of masculinity" is fascinating, but even more absorbing is Huston's construction of Rena. Layered in memories, shrouded in opinions, the "hidden face" of Rena's reality is starkly revealed in all of its brutal complexity.


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