Sometimes I seem to have a sixth sense about what new novels might have embedded photographs. Or maybe I’m just lucky in my quest to find any and all works of fiction that include photographs as part of the “text.” Last week I saw a novel called The Lightning Keeper on the new paperback table at my local chain bookstore and I opened it. Between every chapter were one or more images in the form of historic photographs, diagrams, and documents. Most of them bear captions that help make their relationship to the text somewhat clear, which I find often turns the images into subservient props for the writing. But the images here were clearly chosen by someone with a good eye and so I was not surprised to find that W.G. Sebald had been the inspiration for the inclusion of images in Lawrence Starling’s The Lightning Keeper.
At this point, I will confess that I did not read most of The Lightning Keeper, even though it looks like a great read. This is not a comment on the book at all, but reflects my allergy to highly-researched period pieces. But for the curious, I will reduce the book’s back cover blurb to the relevant phrases:
…unlikely love…immigrant…gifted inventor…every circumstance is against them…determined to win her back…confrontation…the course of scientific progress.
The important part of the novel for me is found at the very back of the book where there is a sixteen-page section called P.S. Insights, Interviews and More… I haven’t been able to check yet, but I doubt this section exists in the original hardback version. Here, Lawrence selects and comments on three books for “further reading,” one of which is Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I’ll quote only about a quarter of what he says about Sebald’s book:
This book is so dazzling that readers (and prize committees) are uncertain whether to call it fiction or non-fiction….Sebald’s book is unique, and I wouldn’t dare imitate his style or imaginative leaps. But his use of photographs in the text, usually without captions, seemed an interesting way to get readers to think about period and place without having to spell everything out on the page. Collecting the photographs for The Lightning Keeper was a great satisfaction and I think they add a resonance to the story.
Given the chapters that I read I would say that Lawrence is being modest and that his images are more than mere furniture for the early twentieth century setting of his novel. The images he uses are quirky and unexpected, which lets them stand more on an equal footing with the text, which is one of my key tests for the intelligent use of photographs in a novel.
Starling Lawrence, by the way, is the editor in chief and vice chairman of the publishing firm W.W. Norton Co., according to his bio.