Book review: Depth of Field, Kirsty Iltners

A well told story that tackles the fallout from the fallibility of memory.
Depth of Field. On the left an author shot of a young Caucasian woman with straight black hair and a long sleeved black T shirt photographed in a garden from the waist up. On the right the book cover of a blurry figure silhouetted against a large window.

What a treat! Kirsty Iltners has given us a captivating fast-paced story about two interesting people, while exploring the considerable vagaries, scope and limitations of memory. The writing is deceptively simple and manages the vernacular without simply resorting to a surfeit of expletives. And she makes adroit original use of photographic metaphors.

Of course in these days of the smartphone, many of us have become, if not photographers, at least snap shooters. We don’t think about terms such as “depth of field” when we press “portrait” before taking a shot of a loved one. And we take for granted the sophisticated technology that improves the image and compensates for some of our mistakes. But the true photographer adjusts their camera, so the picture they take represents what they want to be seen just as we adjust our memories. This may result in a good picture or a particular memory, but could simultaneously be far from accurate.

Set in the present, in an Australian coastal city, Depth of Field features two narrators: Tom, a middle-aged photographer who specialises in photographing residences for sale, and Lottie – the 17-year-old single mother of baby Coral. 

You get to know a fair bit about Tom before you meet Lottie. He is reasonably well-off, divorced and leads a mildly unhappy life, filled with regrets that he expounds upon in some detail. He is more in love with his house than with his past. You get to know him well and to like him and to wish he had married the woman he loved and not the woman who loved him. 

Lottie, at her young age, has less of a past to remember, but it was an unhappy one, with a mother who failed her, and continues to do so in many ways, and a father who was always distant. But mostly Lottie shares what it is like to be a very young mother totally devoted to the wellbeing of her child, and completely dependent on the welfare system. Iltners’ masterly description of Lottie’s interaction with Centrelink is terrifyingly realistic and offers a horrific glimpse of what it can be like to rely on welfare to survive.

These two stories of Tom and of Lottie could each stand alone and are sufficiently interesting in and of themselves while independent of the other. Both Tom and Lottie, each in their own way, ponder their memories while perhaps failing to sufficiently question their accuracy or their completeness: their depth of field, so to speak. But since both stories are in the same book, which shifts focus from one story to the other a number of times, speculation as to what they have in common becomes increasingly heightened. Iltners handles very well how the reader is rewarded for their curiosity.

The strength of this novel lies not only in its storytelling, but in the way it explores the fallibility of memory. The parallels with photography help make the point that, just as the focus of a photograph profoundly affects what we see, so does the conscious or unconscious focus of our memories affect what we remember. Accurate or not, a photograph says little or nothing about what is outside the frame and there again is a meaningful analogy with memory. Depth of Field insistently prompts the reader to consider such fascinating insights.

Read: Book review: Heartsease, Kate Kruimink

Not many writers produce a work of such high quality with their first novel, but Iltners has done so. She is a good story teller who has enhanced rather than spoilt a good yarn by tackling a subject as profound as the fallibility of memory.

Depth of Field, Kirsty Iltners
Publisher: UWA Publishing
ISBN: 9781760802752
Pages: 300pp
Publication Date: 1 May 2024
RRP: $34.99

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.