In an unnamed side street in an unnamed town, a woman is pushed over and her handbag snatched. Her assailant speeds away on a waiting motorbike. “A simple but efficient robbery is carried out on a stranger, and this takes place twenty paces in front of a man with a camera. The man is there only by chance, but he immediately takes his opportunity.”
The man is Gregory Pharoah, a professional photographer, an artist who objectifies the world in black and white. He does not rush to help. Instead he focuses his lens not on the thief, but on the victim. He would take her image, the splayed body bisected by the sharp line that divides the bright sunshine from the dark shadow.
Only when he has his pictures, his image of the body, does his conscience prompt him to go to help her as she struggles to her feet. Even then, “he studied the woman with a professional eye”.
The woman is Alice Fell. In her thirties, she has moved on from partner to partner, taking what the man has to offer and then discarding him, as though making an inevitable progress, perhaps guided by fate, towards her own fulfilment.
Pharoah – a brand name –his real name is the ordinary George Farrer – uses women for his art and his life. She is there to be analysed, for the light to fall on her skin and for her body to provide the analytic geometry of photographic composition.
The theft in the street is only the beginning of a slow, cold seduction. The photographer and his seemingly reluctant model progress through a sequence of encounters, a slow methodical dance that would seem to lead to an inevitable conclusion.
Alice is tired of her naïve boyfriend Thomas. She has exhausted his passion for archaeology and is ready to move on. Gregory, a widower in his fifties, lives his life as he takes his photographs. His women are counters in a composition, a calculated game. Only his wife, Ruth, has been more, and then, in her final illness, he photographed her as she lay dying.
Christopher Burns analyses the process of the relationship with a sharp, black and white precision. Their actions are in sharp focus. Everything else is unnamed.
They may be controlled and controlling, but they find themselves players in a larger, coloured picture. A transfiguring moment takes place on the west Cumbrian Fells at the Neolithic barrow known as Sampson’s Bratfull (near Whtehaven, where Christopher Burns lives).
George Farrer is told by a child visionary that he must heal himself. Alice Fell, however, despite herself, may be prepared to learn about the church and its rituals from an architect she has just met. The dance continues.
Melvyn Bragg found A Division of the Light “a masterful novel” and Kazuo Ishiguro pronounced it “a strange and brilliant work”. It is a beautifully crafted novel , spare in its precise language and with an absolute assurance of intention.
Pharoah and Alice Fell are self-serving and unattractive characters, but their remorseless game is absorbing and leads to a symbolic climax.
This novel is a moral fable for our time, sharp in its analysis of our failure of emotions and our diffidence and self-serving, but equivocal in its resolution. “Gregory stared at himself in the mirror. The surface of his skin became translucent and within the bars of his ribcage there pulsed a gigantic heart. . . . Outside, on the caravan roof, across the settlement, and over Little Maria’s broken-roofed cowshed at the top of the hill, snow began to fall – quiet, deep and relentless.”