Mentally and physically wounded after years of covering wars, photographer Lucas Zane, the main character in A.J. Somerset’s debut novel (winner of the 2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award for an unpublished manuscript), finds himself down and out in Toronto. He lands a job taking photos for a pornographer, a gig that leads him to witness horrors of another kind. While in the studio, he meets Melissa, a young stripper whose life is careening off track. Zane needs a subject and Melissa needs a father figure, and the two form an odd partnership that takes them to Vancouver.
Somerset, who has worked as a soldier, journalist, and freelance photographer, seems well versed in his subject matter. The book is filled with vivid descriptions of light and even provides a good practical lesson on developing a roll of film in a bathtub, which is sure to thrill anyone with a penchant for the pre-digital days.
A book about a wounded alcoholic and a battered porn star might sound like a grim read, and in some ways that is just what Combat Camera is. Full of violence, both domestic and international, the story is gritty and raw. But Somerset draws connections between disparate places to uncover universal truths about our reactions to violence; in one instance, a smashed mirror in a rundown Toronto apartment seamlessly segues into a broken window in Sarajevo. The writing, however, is occasionally overdone. For example, when relations with his agent go awry, Zane repeatedly thinks to himself that the conversation is not going according to the script he has in mind: “has no one read his lines?” An author as adept as Somerset at drawing characters can afford to let them speak for themselves.
Ultimately, Zane is a rambling, tragic, and suprisingly funny figure, and his tragic circumstances take on a strange kind of beauty. What this novel successfully shows is the way in which art can exist in the midst of mayhem.