Sixty Lights by Gail Jones


I have enjoyed this Australian writer in the past (Five Bells); both books were recommended by Reading Matters. Her review of this one mentioned specifically the joy of beautiful sentences and I found I was bowled over time and again by the language. Sometimes that can overshadow or barely make up for an absent plot, but in this case it was an integral part of a wonderful whole. 

We know from the outset that Lucy will die young:

In bed the man beside her turned over, half-awake. His dark humped shape set the mosquito net aquiver.
"Lucy?" he enquired again.
He sounded almost loving.
She will remember this utterance of her name when she meets her own death — in a few years' time, at the age of twenty-two.

Lucy's short life is filled with dreadful events and wonderful loving people; one might even say, "the best of times and the worst of times" as she lived in London just as Dickens' serial Great Expectations was coming out. She and her brother became orphans after their mother died during childbirth and their father shortly after of heartbreak. Their father had written to their lovable, ne'er-do-well uncle in India asking him to take charge of the children. 

Uncle Neville took them from Australia to London where they were in school until he once again ran out of money and the young teenagers went to work. For a time Lucy worked with older women making photographic paper, an auspicious place to work as eventually she became a photographer. Thomas worked at Mr. Martin Child's Magic Lantern Establishment, thus beginning his career in the projection of images.

So many of the lovely sentences in this book create wonderful images; Lucy's thoughts often centered on images and many of the stories of her family's lives were punctuated by a dramatic image. Their father had grown up in China as his parents were missionaries. One day when he was young, he and his mother were in an ox cart on a lonely stretch of road when a thunderstorm arose. He realized the danger and dragged his mother into a field. They were struck by lightning and when they regained consciousness, his mother's skirt was smoldering and her paper umbrella had been burned. He had always wanted to relate this image to others:

That she [his mother] had risen from fiery death, brushed herself down, adjusted her bonnet, tidied up, and then taken and held aloft a burnt-out umbrella. And Arthur had looked up and seen encircling his mother's head a radial structure of sticks, a Florentine halo, through which, in dazzling mauve, shone spokes of storm-swept sky.

They fared better than the ox who died on the roadway. 

In her short life Lucy found herself in unfortunate circumstances more than once and it is her unique approach to life that changes conditions. When she began working in the albumen factory making photographic paper, the women were unkind to her. This changed after the day that, inspired by Pip, she stood up to a violent husband who came to berate his wife. He hit Lucy and ever afterwards, the women were friendly and helpful to her. She was sent to India to marry a friend of her uncle's; he found her "rank-breaking" acts deplorable and noted to himself that Australians had no sense of decorum. She was undeterred and taught one servant to play chess and braided another's hair and eventually was loved by all.

While in India Lucy was taught the basics of photography and quickly developed her own sense of it:

Under the nocturnal shadow of the velvet drape, through the frame, and the lens, and the aperture, and the glass, that together directed her vision into this specialized seeing, Lucy discovered the machine that is a gift-boxed tribute to the eye. She looked as she never had, imagining a picture frame or a box that isolated the continuous and unceasing flux of things into clear aesthetic units, into achieved moments of observation. Where Victor [her teacher] sedated and mortified all that he saw — his box, thought Lucy, functioned as a seeing-eye coffin — she imagined a mobile apparatus, one that travelled everywhere with her and that discerned the capability of all things, all ordinary things, to be seen singly and remarkably.

Yes, ideally, photographs isolate the continuous flux of things into clear aesthetic units, moments of observation.  

Gail Jones, Sixty Lights, The Harvill Press, 2004, 249 pages. Available at the UVa library and through Amazon.

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