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Book Review

A Dark Vision of Love That's as Clear as a Photograph

THE SERVICE OF CLOUDS, by Delia Falconer Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23, 322 pages


Delia Falconer's first novel, "The Service of Clouds," is about many kinds of romance: the erotic romance of men and women (although readers expecting hearts and flowers will be sorely disappointed); the optimistic romance of the early 20th century, when it seemed as if history might finally come to its senses; the technological romance of photography, which enabled us to see the world anew.

Mainly, though, it is about Falconer's own romance with the English language, and the splendid things she can do with it. This is almost surely the lushest, most daringly poetic book you will read this year, in which the writer is positively drunk on words themselves. Like many drunks, Falconer says some true and incisive things; and like many drunks, she sometimes stumbles into incomprehensibility.

"The Service of Clouds"--the title comes from an essay by the art critic John Ruskin--tells the story of Eureka Jones, a pharmacist's assistant who tends to "epidemics of the soul," and Harry Kitchings, the photographer with whom she falls in love and who breaks her. The book opens in 1907, a "time of liquid possibility"; the place is Australia's magical Blue Mountains, which are so close to the clouds that, Kitchings reasons, it might be possible "to take a photograph of God."

Although ostensibly a love story (albeit a bitter one), much of the novel revolves around an epistemological question: What does it mean to "see"? "Harry Kitchings began the education of my eyes," Eureka recalls. "Truly, we had not seen the shape of our passions until Harry Kitchings took their picture for us." But in teaching her to peer through a camera, to analyze cloud formations, "to hold the light within our bones," Harry also destroys Eureka's vision.

Or, more precisely, Eureka--like countless women before her--abandons her own sight: her clear-eyed, perceptive intelligence. Most fatally, she fails to discern who Harry is. "I had squeezed my vision through the polished focus of his sight," Eureka says; thus, she cannot see (until it is too late) that this man who loves the limitless expanse of the sky cannot love her, that he is stunted, timid, vague, oblivious, stingy, fearful and cruelly passive. Eureka offers a love that is "wide and luminous," which is exactly what Harry cannot accept, or even recognize. The lens on Harry's camera is opened wide, but his heart is shuttered.

The real strength of this novel is Falconer's glorious prose. "That string of light which we seemed to walk along together has been broken for a long time," Eureka reflects, which is as good a summation of lost intimacy as any I have read. The lovely descriptions spill forth: Falconer writes of how a fern's fronds "flared into fluffy parasols of light"; of a tubercular patient's "cough as thick as boiling rice"; of those who experience "their own souls as a kind of dark penumbra muffling their faces"; of clouds that are "creased and swollen." But sometimes--too often--Falconer's language degenerates into senselessness. This reader stared for a long time at the description of Harry's dreams as "thick with the cucumber smell of angels' beating wings"; there are many similar lapses.

At the end of this aching novel, Eureka regains, and even deepens, her vision. It is loss, though--not love, and certainly not Harry--that teaches her: "[N]ine years later . . . I had developed habits of forgiveness. I had learned the difference between melancholy and despair." Most important, she has become a photographer herself--and rather than see the world through Harry's eyes, she has decided to use her own. Instead of seeking divinity in the clouds, Eureka hopes to "take photographs so painful" that viewers "will feel the urge to enter and put right the world they represent." She may no longer believe in the romance of love or happiness, but she still has faith in the lonely clarity of the morning light.

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