Review: Where the Light Falls by Gretchen Shirm - An artfully written portrait of a mystery

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Where the Light Falls by Gretchen Shirm
Released: 1st July 2016
Published by: Allen and Unwin
Genre: Mystery
Source: Library
Pages: 277
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Andrew, a photographer compelled by 'the honesty in broken things', returns to Australia when he hears that his former girlfriend has disappeared. By the time he gets back, no body has been found. He prolongs his stay in Australia to investigate her shadowy past, putting his current relationship at risk for reasons he barely understands.

At the same time he meets a damaged girl whom he knows will be a riveting subject for his new series of photos. As he struggles to make sense of his motivations, Andrew realises that photography has become an obsession predicated on his need to hold on to the things he has lost in his life. He finds himself re-evaluating his past and his art in this deeply moving and insightful debut novel from a rising star of Australian literature.
He felt suddenly alert. He was assessing the room for light, he realised. It was his automatic reaction to the world, to decide whether it would make a good photograph. He looked up through the staircase towards his own door. There was light seeping out beneath it. It was faint but warm; it was the light they lived by.

Where the Light Falls was an unexpected find for me - a book that had just happened to catch my eye at the library as I walked past it on the shelf. This is a gentle and poignant story which at face value is about a photographer returning to his home to find out what may have happened to his ex girlfriend. Delving deeper, Shirm has deftly explored this main character through his art, bringing to light the disillusionment of his current relationship and what it will take to find his true purpose in life.

This uneasy attraction he felt towards Kirsten, the way he had been drawn to her, he understood where it came from now. He had mistaken the deep sense of empathy he felt towards her for love.

The plot itself is intensely character-driven, revolving for the most part around Andrew's reaction to the news and how he begins to develop his photography through finding the perfect subject. He often seemed somewhat emotionally detached from the relationships in his life, and perhaps even selfish in his quest to further his career. While not entirely likable though, the author navigated his ethical dilemmas and pensiveness with prose which floated off the page. With a story such as this, there was no real 'closure' which I may have been craving, and some elements did perhaps 'tell' too much instead of simply 'showing'. Nonetheless, what I found so captivating about this book that kept me reading for hours was her prose which is so full of imagery, capturing every moment with an artist's eye. It is almost as if just as Andrew 'saw the world in terms that could be framed', Shirm also has the insight to employ just the right turn of phrase to convey emotions and ideas which could otherwise be left indescribable. I have only come across a few writers who are able to do this so well, and it's a skill which as a reader I admire. 

The library smelt of ageing paper. The ceilings were low and the light was fluorescent and sharp. As he walked deeper into the room it felt like a bunker, a place protected from the outside world. He had forgotten this about libraries - that, like galleries, they were places in which quietness is encouraged.


As I'm beginning to notice more clearly each time I come across an unexpectedly good read, it's the books you're not actively looking for which can turn out to be some of the best. I'm always excited to find a new Australian writer to try, and seeing how Gretchen Shirm's nuanced and purposive style came through has put me on alert for whatever she may release next. 


  1. Always such a joy to find an unexpected delight of a read, thanks for sharing your great review.

    1. It definitely is a great feeling to find a book that surprises you and is so well-written. Australian authors are such a talented bunch!


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