Review: Where the Light Falls by Gretchen Shirm

Genre: Literary Fiction

Andrew, an Australian photographer living in Berlin, has made a career photographing ‘damaged’ subjects. He’s in a loving relationship and a month out from his first solo exhibition in London. However, when he learns that his former girlfriend, Kirsten, has gone missing, he invents an excuse to return to Sydney.

While searching for answers about Kirsten’s disappearance and the intense relationship they shared, he meets a disfigured young girl who agrees to be photographed. As his stay in Australia lengthens from days to weeks, he’s forced to confront difficult truths about his past and his art.

Gretchen Shirm’s Where the Light Falls (Allen & Unwin, Jul. 2016) is an eloquent and tightly-written debut.

That said, I found it a conflicting read. On the one hand, Shirm’s prose is striking, evocative and deeply layered, and the story is tightly controlled—every detail essential to developing Andrew’s character and the interlinked emotional and artistic crises he faces. From a technical point of view, it’s beautiful to read and difficult to fault, save perhaps Shirm’s occasional habit to show and tell, when showing would suffice, and I was not in the least surprised to learn that Where the Light Falls made up the creative component of Shirm’s PhD.

However, I found Andrew a challenging character to ride with. He’s deeply self-centered, to the point where he makes Kirsten’s disappearance and apparent suicide about him. In questioning her grieving family and revisiting their relationship, he appears only to be trying to learn about himself. Similarly, he struggles to understand his mother and girlfriend outside their relationship to him. He even exploits people’s vulnerability to further his artistic career:

He photographed other people’s faces and traded off them. It was a background worry he always had about his work—that he was seeking out people who were in some way damaged and exposing them to the light. All of his successes, he felt, owed more to his subjects than to his skill.

To be fair, the story is, in part, about Andrew recognising his introspection, and he does face a moral dilemma over whether or not to exhibit the photographs of the little girl. But, to my mind, he doesn’t do enough to warrant redemption. The story is ultimately about his self-discoveries and healing, and the characters around him are largely tools to help facilitate that process.

For me, it didn’t help that the supporting characters and their stories were, for the most part, more appealing than Andrew himself. Their problems seemed larger and more urgent: Kirsten is an extraordinarily talented artist who struggles with severe mental health issues and drops out of art school to work a corporate job and pay the bills while Andrew focuses on his art. Phoebe, the little girl he photographs, has been left disfigured after an accident and is just beginning to feel self-conscious about her appearance and to question what role it will play in shaping her identity as she gets older. By comparison, Andrew’s problems seem small, and I found him difficult to invest in.

However, while I struggled to connect with Andrew’s story, Shirm’s writing shows great promise and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.


See Where the Light Falls on Goodreads and purchase through Booktopia and Book Depository.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of Where the Light Falls in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up six critical issues and thirteen advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

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