Generations dogged by big- picture grief
Burning In By Mireille Juchau Giramondo, 310pp, $ 27.95
PHOTOGRAPHY enthusiasts may soon find Mireille Juchau’s Burning In topping the blogs offering darkroom tricks to novices. Quite properly, since the author has reinvented the camera’s eye approach to storytelling, pushing it with paparazzo energy to a provocative extreme.
Juchau’s protagonist, Martine, born in Sydney to Lotte, a survivor of the Nazi regime, is a career photographer who arrives in New York keen to make a reputation.
Turning 30 at the start of Juchau’s novel- cumexhibition, Martine ‘‘ burns in’’ — a multilayered term — on the world, manipulating what she sees by viewing her prints through apertures that give extra exposure to the parts she selects, a procedure not too different from that adopted by the grief- stricken on whom her myriad eyes alight briefly. Still or moving, in a plane, a train, or taxi, Martine is always in camera mode, her trusty Pentax across her chest, viewing life at a distance.
This difficulty in connecting she has learned from Lotte, an assimilated Jewish Berliner, whose absorption in guilt and grief over the way she chose to escape the camps makes life hell for her daughter and husband. Mother and daughter resent each other. Father, the only character with a degree of equilibrium, is loving to both. Eventually, however, sheer amor proprio leads him to leave Lotte to her monumental misery. He quits Sydney’s desolate outer suburbs where Lotte had isolated the little family and moves to Bondi, thankfully restored to the warmth and security of his Yiddish- speaking community.
Juchau enmeshes within two mysteries grief and loss that cross generations and continents. The mysteries come to the fore in old photographs, and photographic technology helps resolve them.
Aside from the demise of her family, Lotte grieves over a secret she sometimes hints at disclosing, but Martine, accustomed to her mother’s past refusals to explain herself, ignores the overtures. Etched in her memory are instances of appallingly insensitive and selfish behaviour that her mother justifies by what she has endured.
With some kind of synchronicity, Martine, the newest New Yorker, eyes a scruffy fellow outside a theatre during an interval between acts; he is not a theatre- goer, just a passer- by walking his dog. After a few cryptic exchanges they lock themselves away for a week of sex and, he being a cinematographer, at one point they achieve a witty and bawdy exchange based entirely on photographic language, a rare light moment for everyone. But misery soon shows up in the darkroom. The cinematographer too has been impaling himself for years on a terrible secret.
A child is born to the couple. It’s not long before Martine, too, suffers heartache and loss. The cinematographer has given the dog to an old friend and the resulting squall sees him move out. The child dies indirectly from a fungal infection in her lung, caught through participating in a child’s party game, probably the most bizarre in recorded history. Martine, demented by grief, looks set to follow Lotte as a resolute, truculent wailer and railer, blaming herself though her maternal devotion has been exemplary.
In the end, new perspectives come from Berlin, where Martine’s detective work at last produces the living subject of a crucial photo with a promise ( can we believe it?) of solace for Martine, the ageing Lotte, Dad, the Berliner Lotte had left behind and maybe even the cinematographer.
This novel is Juchau’s second. With her first, Machines for Feeling, it suggests she has an ongoing interest in alienation and disconnection.
The photographic mindset and methodology incorporated into her novel is bound to make Burning In a talking point at writers festivals, especially since her prose is charged with an effortless flow of powerful, poetic imagery and her crafting of complex shifts in time, place and consciousness meticulous. The camera can show, but not delve. For all its concentration on grief and loss, Burning In offers a level of insight into neurosis no greater than may be found in a magazine health section, while the raw egoism of the grief- obsessed characters makes them unsympathetic, their fate a matter of indifference. Christopher Isherwood and Cabaret , rather than photographers Diane Arbus and Dorothea Lange, may have been livelier models for this kind of opus. Mary Rose Liverani is the author of The Winter Sparrows.