A young Australian writer in Paris, drowning in grief for the death of his girlfriend, is drawn into a surreal series of events by an enigmatic expatriate American. Sonny Lee, first encountered as a vagrant on the streets, may or may not have been the important literary figure he claims to have been, but he does eventually set the novel’s unnamed narrator on a path that spirals down into the darkness of the Parisian catacombs. His disturbing influence is counterbalanced by a sweet, mute Russian prostitute and an uncomplicatedly affectionate young Frenchwoman.
Candle Life has many parallels with John Fowles’ The Magus, likewise centred on a young writer isolated in a foreign community and manipulated into strange and frightening experiences which ultimately bring him self-knowledge; both even have sub-plots revisiting the Second World War, but The Magus is fifty years old, and shows it, while Candle Life is absolutely contemporary. For its major characters, all living on the fringes of society, stability is inconceivable while identity is fluid and drugs, casual sex and gratuitous violence are commonplace. Fowles would have been appalled by the collapse of social institutions, but he would have recognised that his questions about identity and the relationship between truth, fantasy and fiction, had been tackled anew with vigour and integrity.
Brisbane-born Venero Armanno teaches creative writing at the University of Queensland. The mode of his seventh novel matches its content, dreamlike in its swirl of action and illusion and its sudden changes of perspective. Candle Life is a wild, brilliant book.
Review originally published July 2006,
added to this site October 2020.