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Guest review: Elizabeth Bryer on Shane Jones’ Light Boxes

lightboxes cover

Hamish Hamilton
July 2010
9780241144954 (Aus, US, UK)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bryer

This is one of those books that comes with baggage. Cult status? Check. Author plucked from obscurity? Check. Endorsement by guy with cultural cache? Check. (The latter was Spike Jonze, by the way, who at one stage acquired film rights to the title.) Light Boxes has certainly reached our shores amid much hype, which makes it easy to overlook the fact that it was written by Jones in his parents’ basement, and that when it was published by small indie press Publishing Genius, only 500 copies were sent out into the world (author and editor felt at the time that they were working on ‘a cool little art project’, nothing more). In other words, this is a book of tenuous beginnings, which makes its rising star all the more remarkable.

Penguin has created an appropriately whimsical cover and the book’s petite dimensions make it feel like a little treasure. The typography changes a lot (when characters whisper, for example, the font size is smaller, and when the perspective is from one character in particular, the section has a ragged right edge). Such variation has always felt a little gimmicky to me. But other aspects of the experimental layout are, to my eyes, a success: a few pages display only one sentence, which is clever because the white space around the type gives the distinct impression of the winter that is the subject of the book. This sense must have been more prominent in Publishing Genius’s edition, the cover of which was similarly spare.

Light Boxes is about a town that has endured the depth of winter (a personified ‘February’) for more than three-hundred days, with flight the latest thing to be banned. Multiple viewpoints describe what happens next in the war against this deity-like creature, with the vignettes eventually leading the reader toward a metafictional twist. The mood is sombre, with characters oscillating among, at the darker end of the scale, grief, despair and anger, especially when the townspeople’s children begin to disappear. But what prevails at all times is hope, which seems almost audacious, given that it is pitted against the might of February.

‘Saccharine’ seems to be the dismissal most often levelled at the work by Jones’ critics, but I enjoyed the occasional whimsical touches (the painting of balloons on the bottoms of teacups, for example; look out for a later reference to this act of rebellion, which made this reader smile). This is a book best read for the experience offered by its visual imagery and the atmosphere Jones manages to imbue in every line. The world Jones conjures constantly surprises with the breadth of imagination it encompasses.

I don’t know if Penguin planned to release this in Australia just in time for our winter but, if so, that was a clever ploy. But now that, after Sunday’s weather, we seem to be safely through to the other side, read this chilling, fantastical first novel in the sure comfort that winter is (almost) a memory. At least until next year.

elizabethElizabeth Bryer’s writing has appeared in Australian literary journals. She has recently started a blog on reading, writing and translation called Plume of Words

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  • 1
    JamesG
    Posted October 9, 2010 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    Dear Elizabeth – great review and made me want to rush and download the ebook version. There is a Kindle edition on Amazon. But guess what? It’s not available to Australian readers. We seem to be in the same position we were over a year ago where lazy Australian publishers ignore their readers in favour of outdated publishing models. Maybe it’s time to write an article on why Australian publishing is still stuck in the 20 Century and ask why the federal government is protecting them to the detriment of readers. We were told this was because of teething troubles in coming to grips with the ebook “phenomenon”. Sadly this book is not the only current example.

  • 2
    plumeofwords
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    How annoying!

    Though to be fair I think the lack of ebooks has less to do with the laziness of Australian publishers and more to do with trepidation, i.e. trying to find a business model that will suit the market and keep will keep all stakeholders — publishers, booksellers, customers — happy.

    And I think the Productivity Commission report’s recommendations not being taken up by the gov’t (the fed gov’t protecting publishers you refer to) was wonderful. Had the gov’t decided to allow parallel importation, wthout a doubt Australian publishers, independent booksellers and, most of all, local writers, would have suffered, so I can’t say I agree with your wish for the gov’t not to protect publishers. In the long run, it’s for the benefit of readers, because it means we have local content to read — content that I, for one, would be lost without.

    So, yes, Aust publishers need to hurry up with ereader production and distribution, but I can’t agree that this shouldn’t be done by punishing them through allowing parallel importation!

  • 3
    plumeofwords
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    ***should

One Trackback

  1. By Shane Jones’s Light Boxes « Plume of Words on October 10, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    ...] Read the rest over at LiteraryMinded [...

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