Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Rosanne Dingli
318 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1927086506, March 23, 2012
Though not often in use today, the Camera Obscura is still something of a collector’s item. It is used to project an image of its surroundings onto a screen, and was the precursor to the modern camera. As the title might suggest, the Camera Obscura is a recurring motif in Rosanne Dingli’s novel, appearing a number of times in the text as the “dark box” that projects an image. Camera Obscura‘s protagonist, Bart Zacharin, is an Australian photographer who is bored with his work, uninspired by his marriage, and wanting more volatility and spontaneity in his life. We first meet Bart in a Perth cafe, seconds before a loose window pane crashes down, cutting the neck of an attractive woman he’d been staring at. Bart saves the woman’s life and ‘precious’ laptop, spending many surreptitious hours at her hospital bedside as she recovers. He eventually leaves his wife, his mother, and his friends to chase this mysterious woman to France and ultimately to Malta, in what will become a journey of self-discovery and seeming serendipity beyond anything Bart could have imagined possible.
Minnie herself is a mercurial character, still not totally transparent by the end of the novel. Her image is projected through Bart’s internal Camera Obscura – a point of light throught the dark box of his perception. Dingli creates dramatic irony by allowing the reader to understand that Minnie is not at all what she seems much sooner than Bart realises it. His denial and ultimate awakening is part of the character arc of Bart’s development. As he moves towards an understanding of his own past, seen only dimly through his mother’s distorted perception, Bart begins to understand Minnie’s motivations as well. Her life mirrors his in an upside down way – much like the image projected by the Camera Obscura. Bart too mirrors his father as he runs away towards a mystery that is as provoctive as it is dangerous. Like his father, he’s escaping the constriction of his life, and like his father, he finds his identity a long way from home.
Bart’s mother Iris comes across as an unpleasant character within the limitations of Bart’s perspective, but part of his development helps him to understand her — to see her in a broader, more empathetic light:
It was reassuring to be so obviously and visibly like one’s father. But at the same time, he knew it must have been what irritated Iris; placing him against everything she did or stood for. As a child, unaware as he grew more like Charles, he must have been a camera obscura, projecting his father’s image out of the darkness of his disappearance. (166)
Bart’s development is handled organically, building out of the fast-paced plot and mystery that drives the story forward from Perth to Paris, and ultimately into Malta, where Dingli’s deep knowledge of the country of her birth becomes evident in the care that is taken over creating the primary setting of Camera Obscura:
The cliffs were well over a hundred metres high, the sea below illusory and immobile, like an aerial shot on a postcard or book. Deep blue, the colour of sapphires, attested to the depth of the water. The cliffs went on underneath to goodness knew what depth. It was a magnificent place: grandiose, making his head spin.(299)
As Bart discovers the island he also discovers his long-lost father Charles, through the journals provided by Charles’ partner Stella De Cortis. These journals are presented as a secondary story projected through the Camera Obscura of time and distance, with the recently deceased Charles revealing his guilt, his longings, and his impressions posthumously to his son. The effect is powerful, as Bart’s allegiance to his father helps him grow through discovery, both intellectual and visual, that keeps the novel fresh and exciting. Throughout Bart’s story is his camera – recording the visual impressions of Minnie, of Malta, of Stella and her beautiful villa. He’s a man on a pilgrimage to find himself, though it takes him most of the novel to find this out.
Through careful layering of mystery and character development, Rosanne Dingli has created another deeply engaging and powerful novel in Camera Obscura. As is always the case with Dingli’s work, the research is impeccable, enlivened by art, by a deep love of travel and exploration, and above all, by the conjunction of personal and global, art related, history.
Article first published as Book Review: Camera Obscura by Rosanne Dingli on Blogcritics.