cover image Caught in the Light

Caught in the Light

Robert Goddard. Henry Holt & Company, $26 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-6155-0

British writer Goddard has achieved a steady readership here with his atmospheric novels (Into the Blue; Beyond Recall) in which characters unravel a mystery in their pasts. Photography illuminates his new narrative as it spirals from a simple tale of a lonely man searching for his lover to a complex study of obsessions spanning two centuries. While on assignment in Vienna, photographer Ian Jarrett becomes enamored with a woman who calls herself Marian Esguard. He returns to England to inform his wife and daughter that he is leaving them, but his next rendezvous with his paramour never occurs; she disappears, and it turns out that his photographs have been exposed and ruined. His personal and professional life destroyed, Ian pursues his lover, learning that she is a fraud who has claimed the identity of a 19th-century gentlewoman with a talent for chemistry who may have discovered photography decades before the accredited Fox Talbot. Propelled by a psychiatrist with secrets of her own, Ian unmasks murder, deception, blackmail and theft over many decades, while reconsidering his own life as well. With more twists and bumps than an English country road, the convoluted plot swerves from modern mystery to Regency romance to psychological thriller, with Ian experiencing danger and tragedy and bitter regret. What gives cohesion to the story is the lovingly detailed account of the art and science of photography. Goddard takes us to the other side of the lens, showing how composition, light and story can unite to make a great photograph, then traces the history of the process with stops along the way at the 1851 World's Fair, a corporate magnate's London headquarters and Sotheby's. Whether the mystery woman is a heroine reincarnated or evil incarnate proves less compelling than how the magic of photography triumphs over time. (Apr.)