A Division of the Light by Christopher Burns

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A Division of the Light by Christopher Burns

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Addressing issues like rationalism and the existence of a divine plan, the coldness of the characters ultimately fails to engage in this strange and dark story with some unexpected twists.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 9780857386359

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Gregory Pharoah is a professional photographer whose genre is sometimes photojournalism, but more commonly portraiture or nudes. Like his job, his nature is towards the superficial. One day, returning from photographing a bishop (for clarity, this is a portrait assignment and not a nude!) he is the only witness to a street robbery where Alice Fell is the victim. Alice is a fatalist who believes in some kind of divine plan that means there is a reason for everything. She's enigmatic, by nature and by design as this is a quality that she enjoys cultivating. Thus these two different characters become part of the same story and what happens in the following six months is ultimately surprising and even shocking.

Christopher Burns's A Division of the Light is strangely compelling but not an easy read, not least as the two main characters are not particularly likeable. I found both cold in their different ways and while liking the characters' personalities is not essential, I found that my interest in them was reduced slightly by the polarity of their views and ultimately I didn't believe in them. However, there is much to admire here and it's an intense book that explores big issues including fate, faith, rationalism and coincidence. Several of Pharoah's recent photojournalism commissions relate to religious matters - coincidence or fate?

The title itself is clever - of course light is the element that photographers strive to capture, but it is also extended to consider what you might call the light of faith. The story takes some unexpected turns that are both unsettling and thought provoking.

Pharoah has a habit of sleeping with his models (again, not the bishop, I hasten to add) and at first he sees Alice as something of a challenge, to break down her inhibitions and reveal her true character, despite the fact that she has a rather dull and drippy boyfriend who she seems to care little for. But Alice is as calculating as Pharoah in her own way, a fact that only Pharoah's daughter, Cassie, seems to recognize. Both will come to question their beliefs and attitudes, but will this alter their nature?

What prevented me from truly loving the book was, I think, Alice. It's difficult to convey the quality of enigmatic in a character. There are books where, for example we are told that the person is beautiful and every time you read their name the reader somehow feels that. I never saw the enigmatic qualities that Pharoah wants to reveal and becomes obsessed with. To me she was too controlled in this quality and with the shallowness of Pharoah and the mannered actions of Alice, I wasn't engaged in their relationship, no matter how interesting the development of these opposites is.

That said, Burns captures the photographer's obsession with form and light quite brilliantly and the story gets appealingly strange and dark. Similarly, he nails the battle for control between two people with strongly opposed views. Alice is convinced her prince is out there, while Pharoah is only interested in his prints.

It's a book to ponder on and to admire rather than to fall in love with, because there is a general sense of coldness about the story, but technically it's a very fine piece of writing.

We would like to thank the kind people at Quercus for sending us this book for review.

It's a very different style of book, but for more excellent fiction that addresses the balance between faith and rational explanation, then The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen is a brilliant read and highly recommended. You might also appreciate The Jump Artist by Austin Ratner.

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Buy A Division of the Light by Christopher Burns at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Division of the Light by Christopher Burns at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Division of the Light by Christopher Burns at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Division of the Light by Christopher Burns at Amazon.com.

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