Photographs capture light at an instant in time, and so they preserve moments, allowing us to recall them as memories; in many cases, then, photographs can remind us of what we have lost: the past. If the act of seeing a photograph can highlight what we have lost, does ‘the end of seeing’ entail a letting go of the past?
In The End of Seeing by Christie Collins, a winner of the 2015 Seizure Viva la Novella prize, the protagonist Ana is struggling to let go of the past. Ana has suffered loss on multiple fronts and is haunted by the close ones now missing from her life: her young daughter Mia, killed in a car accident; and her husband Nick, a photojournalist presumed lost in a shipwreck while chasing a story of desperate asylum seekers. When Ana thinks she’s seen Nick in the corner of a photograph, “a silhouette on the edge of a street scene”, she decides to travel to Europe against the warnings of her friends and family, a pilgrimage to “follow this until I am rid of your shadow sewn to mine” and “return home only when this is over and all that’s left is a memory like a bruise, only painful when examined”.
Ana’s loss is compounded in this book by the absence of Mia and Nick. We can encounter these characters only as mediated through Ana’s memories, and Collins makes effective use of flashbacks and narrative choices to show us Ana’s losses. The novella opens and is partly written in a second-person direct address to the missing Nick, highlighting how he is simultaneously present and absent from the book. The weaving of this direct address with Ana’s first person experience and flashbacks—in addition to a series of epistolary passages from an asylum seeker who has made it to a processing centre in Australia—rewards the attentive reader, and Collins’s adept literary style ties these different modes of narration together in an engaging manner.
In an address to Nick, Ana voices the fears she’d held of settling down to family life in the suburbs once Mia was born:
I was frightened of the suburbs. Frightened they might teach her that we are all the same, when we both know this is the most damaging lie of our time. A homeless man who longs for a cup of soup on a cold night is not the same as a business tycoon who can’t sleep for thinking of the Spanish holiday house he has been outbid on. And neither of them live in the suburbs.
By expanding the narrative to a global scale and writing of asylum seekers, The End of Seeing asks us to see beyond our immediate situation, our own loss and grief, and consider the experiences of others. In a novella told from a single perspective, with few words to spare, this is an impressive feat. Given the repeated motifs of photography, light, dark, seeing and disappearing, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s a photograph that serves as the neat device that brings the narrative full circle in a satisfying way.
In the epigraph, the prose poem ‘Of Memory and Distance’, Russell Edson considers the place of fiction in taking us to the end of seeing, that “vanishing point, where anyone having penetrated the distance must disappear entirely without hope of his every returning, leaving only a memory of his ever having been”. In The End of Seeing, Christie Collins takes us into this vanishing point as we follow Ana’s journey, both emotional and geographical. A sense of loss pervades this haunting novella, and the intense grief of one woman stretches out on a global scale, beyond all borders and boundaries, to become a universal human experience that we must all confront.