The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 10: Sixty Lights (Gail Jones, 2004)

Books remaining: 16. Weeks left to read them: 30 (it’s going to be fine)

A voice in the dark: “Lucy?” 

It was a humid-sounding whisper. She wanted this, this muffled gentleness, swathed in sheets measured and moistened by the heated conjoining of their bodies. This tropic of the bed. This condensation of herself into the folds of a marriage. The late night air was completely still. Insects struck at the mosquito net, which fell, silver and conical, like a bridal garment around them. Lucy watched a pale spotted moth sail slowly towards her face, land on the net, deposit its powder, and lift unevenly away, It was waving like a tiny baby hand in the darkness. 

sixty lights

Jones is a lecturer in literature, cinema and cultural studies at the University of WA and, for several such units, my lecturer. She was a brilliant one, whose disarming combination of fearsome intelligence and a musical, childlike speaking voice made you want to listen forever. Her knowledge was so complex, so clever, and so beautifully phrased that it excited but did not surprise me to discover she was a novelist.

There’s no way you’re going to read one of her books and not feel like you’re studying something, frankly, so if you’re catering for the average book club, turn back now.

I’ve been carrying around three of her novels – Black Mirror, Sorry and Sixty Lights – for the better part of 10 years now, so it was time to get real.

This is the story of Lucy and her brother, orphaned in Australia as children and taken to Victorian England to grow up under their uncle’s wing. Lucy becomes a photographer and though the novel is outwardly the story of a young woman and her family, it is most essentially a portrait of the world as seen through the eyes of someone like Lucy, who experiences life as a succession of images, frozen in time.

It is not a Difficult Book. It is not lofty or dense. It is peppered with plain phrases and glints of humour that rescue it from the sometimes otherworldly loveliness of its prose.

Lucy felt exulted to be once again on the water. The world before her was like blown glass; some fluid shape expanding, sphere-wise and breathful, into a glistening new form, some sense of the weird plausibility of transmogrification. The wind was high and the broad boat rocked and tossed. Lucy saw Isaac seize the railing and vomit into the heaving ocean. She turned her face into full sunshine and full wind, held on to her bonnet, and smiled.

Lucy turns out strange enough to want to be a photographer, at a time when the closest most women of her station get is working in a factory making photographic paper.

Lucy is naughty enough to get herself pregnant out of wedlock, and curious enough to seek out new experiences that others try to discourage her from having, just so she can observe the results.

Later, when in secret Lucy had persuaded Bashanti to bring her a sample of pan, she sat chewing the tough leaves and attending to the pan-effects. Her mouth burnt, tingled, was becoming numb, and began to fill up with curious liquids. She spat onto the floor and saw before her a small mound of gleaming brownish muck.

There emerges a welcome lovableness to Lucy. I do not believe all heroes or heroines should be lovable; but by golly, in this case it helps.

But the real story is not about what happens to Lucy so much as it is about her inner life – what she sees, and how she sees it. It is above all a loving, minute appreciation of the art and mechanics of photography, a meditation on the magic of the act of recording an image. It celebrates the value of pictures, even more powerfully when the reader inhabits a world in which photographs are so commonplace and overwhelmingly digitised they have all but lost their value and their meaning.

The tale is finely crafted, undoubtedly beautiful and very readable. It was on the 2005 Miles Franklin Award shortlist and the 2004 Man Booker longlist, and deservedly so. But somehow none of this is enough to make me want to press it upon others, declaring they will love it. I am conflicted about saying I didn’t enjoy it – to say so feels like sacrilege, when I have such admiration for the writer, the writing and the achievement – but I can’t see myself rushing to pick up the next one.

Canonise or cast out? Perhaps it is just that my tastes have changed. You can’t get hung up on this kind of thing. I will clear this little shrine to the incredibly impressive Jones off my shelf and move on with life, or at least, to the letter K.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.


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