Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 224 pages; 2005.
Sixty Lights by Gail Jones is a compelling, captivating novel about one young woman’s drama-filled life in Victorian times.
Orphaned as a young child, Lucy Strange and her younger brother are brought up by a slightly eccentric uncle. Leaving their native Australia, the family moves to Dickensian London, a city that was “too vast, too chill and altogether too drear”. Later, Lucy sets forth for the more exotic India, where she sets up home with her uncle’s fey friend in a wealthy European enclave of Bombay.
Throughout the ups and downs of her life (love affairs, depression, oceanic travel) Lucy keeps a diary “bound in purple morocco and tied with a black ribbon” where she “recorded and stored her apprehensions, not of events, but of images”. She calls this diary Special Things Seen. Her eye for detail is so keen she becomes a photographer, recording the people, places and objects that so deeply affect her.
Given that Lucy is to meet her death when she is just 22 – this fact is revealed to the reader at the very start of the novel — her eye for beauty, photographic talents and passion for life resonates even more strongly, because you know (that she doesn’t know) that she’s running out of time to make every moment count.
As a previous post may have indicated, I fell in love with the grace and beauty of Sixty Lights. This is a gorgeous, evocative and handsomely written novel that defies description. It’s a book to wrap yourself up in, a book in which you can let the perfect, lyrical prose wash over you. There are sentences in Sixty Lights that make you stop and smile, others that you want to hold close and etch on your mind forever. (One of my favourites, from page 126, is this: “His shape above the desk was a human comma: everything about him paused.”)
It is ripe with symbolism and littered with references to photographic processes and techniques (for instance, from page 5, “the blinding flash of a burnt magnesium ribbon”). There are multiple layers of meaning that aren’t fully appreciated on just one reading. I don’t re-read books but I feel that with this one, I must. And I know I will enjoy it just as much, if not more, second time around.