In this deeply unsettling novel, we watch protagonist Rena Greenblatt’s life unravel. Or perhaps, it wasn’t as knit together as she (and we) believed.
Whatever the case, Greenblatt, like her creator, author Nancy Huston, is a Canadian native who has traded Montreal for Paris. There Greenblatt makes her living as a photographer, working strictly in infrared film, allowing her to pursue what lies beneath life’s surfaces.
The trajectory of Huston’s work is one of increasing risk in both subject matter and narrative structure. Fault Lines, published in 2008, went backward in time, employing four precocious six-year-old narrators. Sweet Agony (2001), featured 12 friends gathered for a Thanksgiving meal. The narrative shifted not only between the guests but offered commentary from God. The Mark of the Angel (1999), described an illicit affair between a Jewish man and a German woman just after World War II.
In each of the above-mentioned works and Infrared, the Holocaust and its impact define characters. Huston’s novels are populated by Jews who are either Holocaust survivors, their descendants, or Jews living beneath the war’s shadow. I’ve no idea why Huston obsessively revisits of this theme in her work; I am unable to find any references in biographies or interviews, though I welcome clarification. Food is another touchstone: Huston’s women either starve or stuff themselves. Slow Emergencies, (2000), introduces readers to dancer Lin Lhomond and her friend Rachel, who compete in high school to see who can eat the least.
Rachel will reappear in Sweet Agony, older, a successful philosophy professor, still starving herself. Upon spotting her obese friend, Beth, she thinks:
“Oh, I know her fear. Of all the women present, though she’d never believe it, I’m the one who knows it best. Starving yourself is essentially the same as stuffing yourself—the main thing being the absolute, permanent and implacable animosity between you and food.”
Infrared’s Rena, at 45, is tall and deliberately androgynous, proud of weighing only 107 pounds, while her stepmother, Ingrid, is constantly described as stuffing herself, plaintively asking for sodas, snacks or meals. Ingrid is Protestant, but grew up in war-torn Rotterdam. A childhood filled with food shortages has led to a lifelong terror of the slightest hunger pang.
Sexual boundaries are also pushed, at times so far that Houston has encountered difficulty publishing. Fault Lines, which ultimately won the prestigious Prix Femina, was rejected by numerous publishers before finding a home with Black Cat Publishers; nobody wanted to deal with the fictitious six-year-old Sol, already sexually perverted. Brother-sister incest occurs in two of Houston’s novels, adultery in all of them. The Story of Omaya, an early work, dealt graphically with a rape victim’s sufferings. Rowan, Rena’s brother, takes abusive advantage of his adoring younger sister in ways that leave surprisingly little damage, for the adult Rena is a strongly sexual woman with three marriages under her belt, two children, and a string of lovers. Rena adores men and is drawn especially to non-whites. Her sexual life is explicitly rendered and not for the conservative reader.
Much of Huston’s work deals with absent mothers: Lin Lhomond leaves her husband and two small daughters to pursue her dance career; Erra, of Fault Lines, leaves her daughter Sadie in the care of relatives. Rena’s biological mother, Lisa, also abandons her family, leaving husband Simon to raise the children.
Infrared begins with Rena booking herself into a hotel in Tuscany. Her father and stepmother are already asleep down the hall. Simon is celebrating his 70th birthday, and Rena has gifted him a trip through the city, acting as tour guide. It’s a decision she regrets before leaving Paris, making fervent love to Aziz, her young lover, and rushing to the airport.
Huston is a gifted creator of characters. Anybody spending time with aging relatives will empathize with the ever-restless Rena, sharing her irritation at her father and step-mother, who are easily tired, often fretful, so concerned with their bodily needs that they miss the grandeur of their surroundings. Their conversation in a Kodak shop, as they search for the perfect disposable camera, is enough to reduce the most patient adult child to howls. Rena’s careful plans, her consultations of the Guide bleu, are lost on her father and stepmother.
While Ingrid is annoying, it is Simon who alternately enrages and saddens. Rena’s once-vital father is diminished, his razor intellect flashing and retreating. He’s easily distracted as the three make their way to each day’s planned destination: a museum, a church, the place of Dante’s birth.
In addition of her fluency in French and English (she writes in French, then translates her work for the English-speaking market), Huston is clearly at home in Italian culture, fluent not only in the language but the country’s history, literature, and art; as in all her works, her intellectual range is impressive. (As if this weren’t enough, Huston is an accomplished musician and an elegant beauty.)
To maintain her sanity as her father and stepmother dither, the ultimate tourists in baseball cap and a florid pink coat, Rena retreats into memory. Oddly, she has an internal “invisible friend”, for lack of a better term, an alter-ego named Subra: Arbus spelled backwards, homage to photographer Diane Arbus. Subra is the vehicle that drives the reader into Rena’s past: tell me, (italics author’s) she coaxes Rena. Thus the reader learns of first husband Fabrice, a Haitian who died of kidney failure, not surviving to see the birth of son Toussaint, second husband Alioune, of Senegal, with whom Rena had a second son, Thierno.
Between Fabrice and Alioune was the Cambodian homosexual Khim, a marriage of legal convenience. Now there is 30-year-old Aziz, an Algerian journalist Rena met through her magazine work. Rena is deeply in love with Aziz and hopes he will move in with her, even marry her—throughout Infrared she refers to him as her husband—but he struggles with their cultural differences. A visit to the hammam (women’s bathhouse) with Aziz’s mother slams this home in claustrophobic detail, but it never occurs to Rena that their differences are insurmountable.
When not retreating into memory, Rena reaches for fantasy, largely sexual in nature. Tremendously flirtatious in life, the sight of a handsome man is enough to send her into raptures that would make Erica Jong blush (okay, maybe not). But as the days pass, memory and fantasy prove insufficient. What initially appears to be a perfect life, or at least, a successful, independent life lived on one’s own terms, begins disintegrating.
There is Italy itself, with its maddening traffic and ring roads. Rena drives as Simon navigates, leading to more than one argument. The weather is hot. Tuscany’s citizens range from the solicitous to the outright rude. Even the charming Gaia, who runs an immaculate bed-and-breakfast, turns out to be deeply religious, a Catholic whose wish to listen to religious radio chills Rena.
Meanwhile, ominous news is trickling out of France Lacking access to the internet or newspapers, initially Rena has little idea of what’s happening, only that her beloved Aziz has become unreachable. Gradually she realizes riots are occurring in Paris and the surrounding suburbs, that two teenagers of North African descent died while hiding out in an electrical substation. Aziz is in the thick of it. Rena soon receives a telephone call from her editor, demanding she cut her trip short. The call does not go well. Aziz grows increasingly difficult to reach.
Ingrid and Simon continue plodding through the trip, vaguely aware of the French unrest. Events continue on a downward trajectory, meaning what begins as a relatively sunny story becomes increasingly challenging. Huston is fine writer whose occasional lapses bespeak somebody living in two languages. But Rena is soon as diminished as Simon, making for an unhappy ending. I cannot say Infrared is pleasant, light, or uplifting, but it is relentlessly honest, incisively and intelligently written, making it worthy of the reader’s time.