Sixty Lights, Gail Jones

“You want the maculate, not the immaculate…”
“Yes”, said Lucy. “The world is like this, don’t you think? Marked, and shadowed, and flecked with time.”

(Sixty Lights, 146)

If there was ever a book marked, shadowed and flecked with time, then this is it.

A work of historical fiction (neo-Victorian fiction, to be precise), Jones’ novel moves across the nineteenth century world with lyricism, whimsy and intentional anachronism to explore a nostalgic vision of the Victorian era.

This is the tale of Lucy Strange, who opens the book as a young and pregnant woman in India dreaming of death, and whose death at age 22 is revealed to the reader on the second page. This prologue is succeeded by the image of Lucy as an eight year-old in the Victorian colony of Australia in 1860, watching her mother’s pregnancy and death, followed in the same chapter by her father’s suicide. The narrator says before the imminent death of Lucy’s mother that “it is from this day that [Lucy’s] life enters the mode of melodrama” (7), and she is indeed thrown out into a wide and engaging world.

Lucy, orphaned with her brother Thomas, is sent to live with their uncle Neville in England. With Neville’s spiritual forays and financial ruin, the children are sent to work, and later Lucy to India. The rest of the novel is Lucy’s young adult life, including her forays into photography and her pregnancy and motherhood, and finally her pre-determined terminal illness.

It is aptly named, for Sixty Lights is a novel of sixty photograph-like chapters, each with their own tone, shade and images. Photo-graph, transliterated from the Greek as “light-writing”, is precisely Jones’ concern. Her chapters are illuminated in a variety of ways, from the candlelight and sunlight of Australia to the gas-lamps and magic lanterns of London, as well as employing flames and mirrors.

Throughout this novel, Lucy develops a philosophy of bioluminescence: that life creates light, and that light is connected with images, experiences and memories. This is a text that takes a less critical approach to neo-Victorian representation than some recent novels.* However, Jones is nevertheless no less self-reflexive or intertextual than many neo-Victorian novels, and she intersperses her nineteenth century narrative with “ghosts” from the present – anachronistic references, and modern sensibilities.

A neat analogy for the novel is a scene in which Lucy is charmed by her thumbprint on photographs (199). Lucy is recognising that in seeing her thumbprints she is being honest about the construction of them. This analogy can be applied to the book as a whole: in allowing us to see the ‘thumbprints’ of the postmodern world, Jones is celebrating the maculate nature of the world, and accepting the necessarily constructed nature of art. This is a poetic, nostalgic novel, whose characters are at times lost to the lyricism, but whose light-writing makes it a memorable read.

Sixty Lights

*This novel is much less critical of the Victorians than, for instance, Jack Maggs, which is Peter Carey’s re-writing of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

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