In 1843, 400 ministers broke away from the Church of Scotland in protest at state interference in matters of faith. Known as the Disruption, the establishment of the Free Kirk was a momentous event that moved the renowned artist David Octavius Hill to celebrate in paint. With the aim of depicting everyone who played a part, his ambitious project took twenty years to complete, and might have taken longer but for the new art of photography, or less time had real life not intervened.
In a similar manner, Ali Bacon’s individual stories build, chapter by chapter, an absorbing fictionalised overview of a point in history where religion, art and science coincide. The voice – or voices – perfectly evokes both time and place, the style reminiscent of Victorian novels (although without the boring bits) and with a smattering of dialect to delight (who couldn’t love the word hirple?) without interrupting the reading process. Clearly meticulously researched, in both character (only two of whom are entirely fictional) and practicalities, this is filtered lightly through the narrative; even when illustrating the mechanics of producing a calotype, research always comes secondary to story. And a very human story it is, with births, deaths and marriages across the twenty years between the commissioning of the painting and its unveiling. While Hill and Adamson are the prime movers, the female voice predominates in the novel, introducing us to several strong women, some artists in their own right, from Lady Eastlake (an art critic who published a scathing early review of Jane Eyre) to a Newhaven fishwife.
Having neither a strong interest in photography nor an intimate acquaintance with Edinburgh, I’d have been unlikely to pick up this novel if I didn’t have a connection with the author in cyberspace. Always nervous about committing to review the work of someone I know, the authorial confidence and control, and passion for her subject, soon blew my anxieties away. Although the inevitable profusion of characters had me checking back to the cast list, that was only a minor irritation in the context of extremely accomplished novel.
In reimagining the advent of a process we now take for granted, In the Blink of an Eye is reminiscent of Guttenberg's Apprentice. Published by Linen Press, you can find out more about the background to this novel on Ali Bacon’s website. For another novel about a photographer at a crossroads, see this review.
I considered pairing this review with that of another novel linking art and Christianity but, fifty pages in, it’s heading to be a rare DNF (did not finish). But the latest Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge on the silliness that can take us over the sun comes out after a long winter fits well with Edinburgh’s dreich climate, prompting an historical 99-word story:
“The sun’s out,” says Flora. “Let’s away!”
A threadbare shawl cloaks my shoulders. I’d been saving my coin for a new one, but this will suffice until November’s snow.
The queue snakes around the close, jigging and joshing as if at the Highland Games. Sobering as our turn approaches, as if for Kirk.
Mr Hill seats each individual, helps us adopt the most appealing pose. On checking the light, Mr Adamson dips beneath the camera hood. “Hold!”
I avert my gaze from Flora’s gurning. But when the calotype is printed, you can see the laughter leaching from my eyes.