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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Nancy Huston

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To purchase Infrared

Title: Infrared
Author: Nancy Huston
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 263 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Infrared - US
Infrared - UK
Infrared - Canada
Infrarouge - Canada
Infrared - India
Infrarouge - France
Infrarot - Deutschland
  • French title: Infrarouge

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting, but veers too wildly between the inspired and the simplistic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Globe and Mail . 14/10/2011 Michel Basilières
New Statesman . 6/12/2012 Claire Lowdon
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/10/2012 Regina Marler

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel flows with a thematic coherence built up out of many small and tenuously connected episodes. Huston shows her usual mastery of complicated structure, her wide cultural knowledge and her brilliant, assured portraiture. Though she’s originally from Calgary, she is by now a thoroughly naturalized French novelist and this shows in Infrared in her fearless portrayal of sexuality, her playfulness of form and the ease with which she crosses the boundaries of style, point of view and even grammar." - Michel Basilières, The Globe and Mail

  • "It is very difficult to describe tedium without being tedious and Huston does not succeed. (...) Infrared is cliché-concentrate (.....) And the sex -- there is a lot of sex -- is truly terrible, worse than D H Lawrence on a bad day" - Claire Lowdon, New Statesman

  • "Huston, who translates her own novels from the French, is a master of emotional shifts and indirection; what looks like meandering in Infrared is a narrative chess game, every move worth watching." - Regina Marler, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Infrared chronicles eight days that forty-five-year-old photographer Rena Greenblatt spends with her father Simon and step-mother Ingrid playing tourist in Florence. Rena lives and works in Paris, where she is on what she calls the fourth of her husbands, Aziz (though, for example, the one-year tie to the homosexual refugee Cambodian Khim was just for show and immigration). It's October, 2005, and the Paris projects begin to erupt in violence while Rena is away; her unwillingness to immediately return leads Aziz to rethink their relationship (and also costs her her job).
       Rena is also a somewhat old-school photographer: she hasn't even switched to digital yet. But one thing she has embraced is: "pure sensation, the infra-infra-infrared of longed-for warmth beyond visibility", and one of her techniques is to use delicate infrared film, where she can claim:

I myself am the ultrasensitive film -- capturing invisible reality, capturing heat.
       In Florence, Rena is exposed to an overwhelming concentration of cultural splendors -- but in the company of her aging father, and a stepmother whose familiarity with art and history is limited. No, it's not like the good old days with Dad (which is what his current wife also calls Simon ...), a scientist who never quite made it, as Rena wonders:
     Could this really be the man who used to drop acid with me when I was seventeen or eighteen, ostensibly to cure me of migraine headaches ?
       Rena grew up in Canada, her activist mother, a lawyer independent enough to keep her name even in those times when it was still uncommon to do so, leaving them while her daughter was in her teens. Indeed, her mother abandoned them after Dad got a then sixteen-year-old Rena involved in something arguably worse than just dropping acid, which got him and a colleague kicked out of Britain and their story on the front page of the Montreal Gazette on their return. (Mom, defender of prostitutes, would seem to have a lot to answer for, but remains woefully absent from significant parts of the narrative, a subject matter that comes across as almost off-limits.)
       Infrared is both a chronicle of the mundane -- the three visitors to Florence playing at tourist, with even the Paris-riots unfolding only on the TV screen -- and a look at what's going on in Rena's very active mind, as she recalls past and considers the present. And Rena is very much preoccupied by sex. Much of the art, and some of the history, leads her to wonder about sexual relations, but mostly she's concerned with her own. From describing her own budding awareness of the power she had over men -- an early, controlled testing of it comes when she heads into an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood as a young girl on her bicycle -- to the passion she feels, Rena is one very uninhibited woman. But sex may be a bit too much front and center for her own good -- right down to the fact that:
     The main reason I decided not to marry Xavier, my handsome French art collector and connoisseur, is that we couldn't agree on the subject of our future son's penis.
       In that case, the debate is about circumcision (Rena is determinedly opposed; Xavier is a big fan -- and, typically in this art-obsessed novel, their most heated argument about it was while at the Louvre), but Rena's concern about the essence, of anatomy and sex, has dominated much of her life.
       As if all this weren't enough yet, Huston gives Rena an alter ego cum guiding light, named Subra -- an alter ego of Rena's idolized Diane Arbus (whose very name is 'Arbus' spelled backwards).
       Huston packs it in this novel -- often with inspired touches. Rena's own story and her twin obsessions of lust and photography are quite fascinating, but Huston loads so incredibly much on here. For all the introspection, much of it is lazy and evasive; the over-full backstory overshadows much of what she actually does reveal. The discussions of female (and male) sexuality are vivid and often intriguing, but Huston doesn't give Rena any counterparts to develop much of this, and her one-sided viewpoint is ultimately too limited. That several significant counterpart characters are portrayed so simplistically -- Aziz is barely a presence before he abandons her; Ingrid is unbelievably dull and uninformed -- also diminishes the overall portrait.
       It's fine for the story to be focused so closely on the admittedly interesting Rena, and its admirable how at ease Huston is with her sexuality (even if the reader likely wants some more answers, like what the hell was Rena thinking as a teenage psychotherapy subject). But Huston doesn't seem to feel comfortable with the supporting cast (hence possibly also the resorting to the 'Subra'-figure ...), typically relegating them off-scene, especially in abandoning Rena (her mother, Aziz).
       Infrared is an odd mix of a novel. On the one hand, it is overflowing with impressive ideas, many of which Huston uses very well (though admittedly some of it, such as Florence as tourist center, are very hit and miss), and much of her deep immersion in matters of female sexuality impresses greatly. On the other hand, too often she settles for the quick and easy (and, occasionally, sensationalistic) scene and conclusion, without developing or probing further.
       Infrared is an interesting work, but ultimately a frustrating novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 July 2012

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Infrared: Reviews: Nancy Huston: Other books by Nancy Huston under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nancy Huston was born in 1953, and now lives in France. She writes in both French and English.

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