The term "clair-obscure" is also known as "chiarascuro" or "light out of darkness". It is a technique used by photographers and painters such as Rembrandt and Georges De Latour. De Latour's Repenting Magdalene (below) is an excellent example -- the figure emerges in swaths of light out of the blackness. It is also a dramatic lighting technique used in stage craft. It is an excellent title for Billie Hinton's novel claire-obscure.
claire-obscure is both horrifying and mesmerizing and not for the feint of heart. It is the story of Claire, a lost young woman, who grew up in a bleak family situation, the only child of a cold, bitter mother and a father who was coming to the acceptance of his homosexuality. At 17 Claire is brutally raped and from that point on she lacks any sense of boundaries or self-regard. She is intelligent and lovely but utterly and completely lost. She dresses in vintage clothing from consignment shops, writes secret letters to Virginia Woolfe, and works for a predatory bisexual woman named Ann whose husband manages to disappear at the most inconvenient times.
Billie Hinton has an extraordinary gift for language. Her writing is both mellifluous and harsh. She writes the story of Claire's conflicted relationship with two men, equally strange and remote in their own unique ways, with mesmerizing detail and a sort of come-hither sensuality that beckons you in then leaves you standing at the closed door wondering what just happened. It is intoxicating because I found myself getting annoyed at Claire and her constantly self-destructive behavior but yet so intrigued I couldn't stop reading.
The two men who soon find their way into Claire's life are equally hypnotic. Finn Weston is an affluent medical student who invites her to live with him in a huge apartment but she soon discovers that, while she is attracted to him and he is intensely possessive and controlling of her, he is incapable of a sexual relationship with her, though he seems quite able to function with other women. Claire's jealousy notwithstanding Finn becomes intimate with Lucy who winds up mysteriously dead – though nothing can be proven to the contrary, all of Claire's friends suspect Finn.
Her other lover, Raoul Duras, is part of a Special Forces Delta team and spends his free time rescuing prostitutes and other lost women. Claire becomes his new fascination but, even though he grows to love her and longs for her to live with him, she cannot bear his long absences when he is on assignment and so she returns to Finn. With Finn she begins a descent into degradation with other men, emotional and eventually physical violence, and other humiliations but she is held hostage by his claims to need her, to be helpless without her. The story becomes painful at times as Claire goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth between these two men.
This is a well-crafted, deeply penetrating study of three people all with their own separate wounds. I was somewhat struck by the fact that Raoul, the eventual hero of the story, had the last name Duras because the haunting style of story-telling Hinton employs was reminiscent to me of some of the stories of French writer Marguerite Duras, particularly The Ravishing of Lol Stein.
This is a very seductive book – not always easy to read but even harder to turn away from.
Thanks for reading.