‘A Division of the Light’ by Christopher Burns

A woman is mugged on a quiet London street; her handbag is stolen, she is knocked over and a photographer captures her image as she falls. But is this just a chance encounter? The woman, Alice Fell, believes that the moment is significant but the photographer, Gregory Pharoah, is a rationalist; he doesn’t believe in fate and yet he is strangely drawn to the enigmatic Alice. As their relationship develops it has a butterfly-effect on the lives of those around them and sets in motion a chain of events that have spectacular consequences.

The book’s cover image is very striking, it captures a woman falling, or rising—the ambiguous moment referred to in the quote below:

Gregory shook his head. ‘I don’t know what you want to find in those shots, but you’ll be disappointed. In one of them you seem to be lifting from the ground rather than dropping to it, but that’s an illusion. Perspective and body posture and the fall of light just make it seem that way. There’s nothing unusual or bizarre or inexplicable about it. Take it from me.’

The protagonists’ names are clearly symbolic—they are captions to the portraits. Initially ‘Alice Fell’ is ambiguous, is it a name or a verb? It implies a spiritual fall from grace or falling down a philosophical rabbit hole, as much as the actual physical fall that initially captures Gregory Pharoah’s attention. Later on there is an allusion to the literary reference –‘Alice Fell (or, Poverty)’ is also a poem by Wordsworth about an orphan girl who weeps because her cloak is caught up and destroyed in the wheels of the poet’s carriage. ‘Gregory Pharoah’ (revealed to be an assumed name) is a transparently aspirational nom de plume. It speaks of a desire for power, for immortality and conversely exposes the things that he fears most of all—insignificance and death.

There are obvious parallels to be drawn between this book and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Both books open with a dramatic inciting incident—a robbery and a balloon accident. The men involved both feel some sense of guilt, of being complicit in the incident even though they did not cause it—Pharoah, because he photographs it and McEwan’s protagonist, because he lets go of the rope. And both incidents lead to an obsessive relationship. Burns’ ending is similarly dramatic, though not quite as bloody as McEwan’s, but apart from these plot devices the styles are very different. McEwan’s language is lyrical; the words themselves add a sense of mystery to the scenes he describes, Burns’ language is plainer but the tone is philosophical. There is a photographic quality to Burns’ prose. The descriptions are evocative but the writing does not call attention to itself—there are no visible brush-strokes. The characterisation is revealed through stylised portraits and the perspective allows the two main characters to attain mythic proportions, they become archetypal—dare I say reminiscent of The Fountainhead, although their human weaknesses are ultimately revealed.

Though the action is told from the perspective of both of the protagonists, it is definitely Pharoah’s story. Pharoah, the photographer, is the one who is transformed as he is exposed, whereas Alice, the subject, remains mysterious, portrayed in shallow depth of field. Her background is never clarified, there are allusions but we are given no details about her past life. One could argue that, as a character, she is not as finely-drawn as Pharoah; we cannot quite comprehend the fascination she evokes in him. Pharoah shields himself behind his camera and documents life to avoid having to actually live it. We watch his progression out from behind the camera and into the focus of this narrative.

The story is presented in snapshots; it has a primarily visual rather than narrative emphasis. There are recurring motifs; sacred places, bolts of lightning, the contrasts of life and death, faith and doubt, light and dark. It is a study in chiaroscuro—a juxtaposition of light and shade to construct meaning and substance. The surreal climax could be described as a deus ex machina moment, but in context it is elevated into a philosophical question, not just a literary device. It does require the reader to suspend a large amount of disbelief, but no more so than any McEwan plotline.

As a work of art this novel is stylish and confidently framed—a compelling composition.

This review was first published on the Writers’ Hub.

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