This book begins where it ends: with a man lying on "dusty French cobblestones" in a Parisian street coming out of what he feels to be a coma of sorts.
The man is an Australian writer. He is living in an arts commune, where he spends his days mourning his Japanese-Australian girlfriend, Yukiko, who died suddenly before their planned trip to France.
One day he gets harassed by a strange-looking black man with a misshapen head. His name is Sonny, he's American, a beggar and he claims to have known many of the 20th century's greatest writers before his unspecified fall from grace.
Our unnamed narrator is not quite sure what to make of Sonny -- is he being duped, or is his story a legitimate one? -- but the chance meeting acts as a kind of catalyst for all kinds of accidental occurrences, including sexual congress with a mute Russian woman, the death of his dead lover's gay friend and a love affair with a French student. Throw in a rich, possibly corrupt, Russian art dealer and a second beggar with a dodgy past and you get an entire cast of weird characters that only serves to heighten the strangeness of the city's dark underbelly in which the narrator finds himself.
While it's difficult to describe Candle Life without giving all the best bits away, it can be summarised as a strangely beguiling book about one man's journey of self-discovery -- spiritually, sexually and creatively -- in a foreign city far from home. Through the narrator's recollections of his life in Australia juxtaposed with his life in Paris, his dislocation and alienation becomes very real to the reader. And because he is grappling with grief, he has an air of vulnerability that makes him endearing even if you might not agree with all the decisions he makes. I know at times I wanted to shake him by the shoulders and say, what are you doing? are you crazy?
Armanno's writing is very assured, at times almost dreamlike, lulling the reader into a kind of trance. I've not read any magic realism before, but I imagine that parts of the story fall into this genre, although I think it would be unfair to label the entire book as such, because much of it is incredibly lucid and down-to-earth and very, very accessible.
As much as I enjoyed the story, there seemed to be too many divergent tangents which didn't always drive the narrative forward. I found the chapters towards the end to be the most interesting and intriguing -- especially Sonny's revelations about what happened to him in Turkey and then our narrator's claustrophobic, page-turning experiences in the catacombs under the streets of Paris.
All in all, Candle Life is a richly symbolic and -- as the blurb on the back describes it -- "startling original" book about finding your way out of darkness and into the light. Unfortunately, it is not available outside of Australia and New Zealand, which is a great shame because it deserves a wider audience. (Try Angus & Robertson online, Readings.com or Australian Online Bookshop for international orders.)