Books

Gretchen Shirm
Where the Light Falls

Andrew is an Australian photographer living in Berlin with his girlfriend, Dom. One night he receives an email from his best mate back in Sydney, Stewart, telling him his ex-girlfriend, the ever-troubled Kirsten, has disappeared, her car found abandoned at Lake George. Andrew has an important exhibition coming up in London but despite this, and despite not really explaining to Dom why, he books a flight home to find out what happened to Kirsten.

Gretchen Shirm’s debut novel is about intimacy, the drive to make art, and loss – compounded loss in fact, because Andrew’s burgeoning grief over Kirsten triggers the long-buried trauma of the sudden death of his father, when Andrew was 11. Like many novels that have loss at their centre the mood is solemn throughout. Andrew is stuck in that blasted, emotionally blocked state that is such a familiar trope of literary fiction, not to mention television drama. Everything he observes reflects back to him, and to us, his grief-stricken state: “petals slipped suddenly from the roses in the vase”, the skin of an eggplant is “secretive and dark”, traffic is like voices “full of sorrow and anger”.

Andrew’s solace is Dom and art, but ultimately neither of these do enough to add nuance while we wait for the details of Kirsten’s disappearance to accumulate.

Before the wounds of the past are opened back up, we are offered a vignette of Andrew and Dom’s happy life in Berlin and it is a fairly colourless place: “Over breakfast they hardly spoke. Their best exchanges, he often thought, were wordless, when all they shared between them was a mood.”

Concerned with “the honesty in broken things”, Andrew’s photographic portraits capture the beauty of people with unusual features. A narrative thread about the ethical dilemmas around photographing children is well handled, but Andrew’s musing about all of this rarely lifts beyond the commonplace.

The supporting cast doesn’t offer much light to the shade either. Best mate Stewart is duller even than Andrew, and Phoebe, the child he photographs, and her mother, Pippa, are nicely drawn but remain distant.

Shirm is an accomplished writer, using to fine effect spare, evocative prose, and she has Andrew do a lot of good noticing, but this isn’t enough in such a safe and familiar novel. Hopefully Where the Light Falls is the foundation for bolder work to come.  SH

Allen & Unwin, 320pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "Gretchen Shirm, Where the Light Falls ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: SH