Book 397: The Effects of Light

This book is about two young girls who star in a series of photographs from their childhood into their teens. The photographs become controversial as the girls grow older, with people calling them pornographic and suggesting that their father is unfit, and ultimately one of the girls is murdered because of her role in the images. The other flees, changes her name, and lives in hiding until a mysterious letter arrives.

It’s kind of an interesting narrative, because we have a dual narrative going on: the present day, with our now grown older sister learning more about the circumstances of the photographs and her sister’s death, and the past, in which the younger sister narrates the story of the photographs until she is killed. (A sort of not-so-subtle Lovely Bones reference, but I can forgive the author for it, I think.)

The writing in the book is rather interesting, in that it evolves dramatically between the start and the finish. In the first part of the book, it is very stiff and clunky. “And then Kate did this.” “Kate walked into the library. Kate found her carrel.” Yet, as soon as she comes out and takes her real name back, the writing becomes more smooth and fluid. If it’s a deliberate device, it’s brilliant. If it’s accidental…oh well.

One of the themes which runs through the book is the idea of misunderstanding and confused motives. Characters rarely communicate directly with each other, and there are some resulting confusions about what is really going on, including some rather tragic confusions. The book also discusses the ways in which art shapes society, with the murder at the end of the book being instigated by a man who had never even seen the images; he just heard about them on the radio and thought that they were wrong, a powerful illustration of why it’s important to confirm things independently, I tell you what.

There have been a number of controversies in recent years over nude photographs of young children, and debates about whether or not they are art, and whether or not they are pornographic. One of the characters, talking about this issue, says that the judgment of the artist is critical, as only he or she can hold back images which could be misconstrued. But, we’re also a society which is terrified of nudity in all forms, because we automatically associate it with sexuality, and I’m not sure that this is a good thing.


The Effects of Light, by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Published 2005, 350 pages. Fiction.