Author: Shannon Burke
Publisher: Random House
Year Published: 2005
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A friend loaned me “Safelight” because it’s about photography and death—two of my hobbies. She said it made her depressed. And it is a depressing book, in the same way “Tuesdays With Morrie” (Mitch Albom) is a depressing book. Drawing from his experience as a paramedic in Harlem, the author takes us on a gritty ride through the squalid backstreets of NYC circa 1990. Through his main character Frank, a paramedic, Mr. Burke relates life through ambulance calls with gruesome clarity and realism. Frank’s job is the vehicle for the story.
What is Safelight about?
The word safelight refers literally to the reddish light used in photographic darkrooms. Metaphorically it has other meanings in the book. Written in the first person, Safelight is a riveting account of a two-year portion of the main character’s life. Frank, the paramedic, is also an amateur photographer who likes to photograph dead, injured, and decrepit people. It appears to be a sick habit his coworkers tolerate, maybe even admire. We never really find out why he does it (to which I can relate, as a photographer), only that it helps him cope in some real way with his life and the death of his father. Frank enters a relationship with a terminally ill woman, a professional fencer. Life happens quickly in this relatively short book.
What is Safelight about?
The characters in Safelight are tough, as one would envision New Yorkers to be. Tough ‘til the end. Though none of them are developed to any great extent, we learn who they are and how they are wired effectively enough to hold the story together. They are thoroughly believable from my perspective: I’m a photographer, I live in a big city, I work at a hospital, and I have a (possibly) less-than-wholesome interest in death.
Set in the tenement neighborhoods of New York City in 1990, the book is part love story, part self-discovery. Frank gets into various forms of trouble, or rather, puts him into situations that seem unwise from an objective point of view. But really, we sometimes do things that are inexplicable, not only to the watching world, but to our own selves. Some of the things the characters do also seem inexplicable; though we know they can and do happen.
Reading this book is another one of those inexplicable things. It’s almost like you know there will be a bad outcome, but you keep reading, expecting some life-affirming philosophy at the end. In this regard, the book does not disappoint. I found it difficult to put down, perhaps because it appealed to me on so many levels. Paramedics would find the story technically accurate. Photographers will relate to Frank, especially if they’ve labored to find direction, reason, and an outlet for their work. No different, really, than the average person looking for and possibly finding direction. After reading Safelight, we’re tempted to look back on our own lives and consider that specific experiences may not have been mere distractions in our path, but rather guideposts. Could such an epiphany change the way we view future events?
The Writing Style
Safelight is Burke’s first novel. The writing is almost in journal, or diary form. Maybe what you’d expect in a paramedic’s notebook. It’s concise, almost terse writing style is engaging in that you know this chapter will not contain fluff. You expect the other shoe to drop at any time.
It seems to me the goal of the book is to make us think about why we do what we do. We see from chronologic narratives how lives are shaped by discreet events–birth, childhood, friendships, marriage, divorce, death. But we also see that only the first event, birth, is beyond our control. Whatever else happens to us is usually of our choosing. Things don’t happen to us so much as we choose our directions.
A book like this can make you feel a lot of things—like you are afraid to die, like you should appreciate the beauty in the world, like starting a new romance, be accepting of death. In the liner notes, Safelight is described as a “love story not for the faint of heart.” Sounds trite, but for me it meant that a love story doesn’t necessarily mean the couple will live happily ever after. Its optimism stems from the fact that life really only has one end. When we find ourselves at an impasse, stalled, or traumatized, we can think of how Helen Keller said that when one door closes, another opens.