Louis Daguerre was a founder of modern photography, inventing the diorama in 1822 and the daguerreotype, the first easily executed photographic process made public in 1839.
This novel begins in 1846 with the elderly Louis plagued by visions. A series if insights and hallucinations, a feeling of things, perhaps even his life is finally coming into focus. Growing blind to the squalor of the dying days of King Louis-Philippe's reign, Louis wonders the streets of Paris, drinking with his best friend, the celebrated poet Charles Baudelaire.
As the beds of spilt mercury capture his reflection, Louis turns to the memories of childhood in
provincial 1802 Orleans and his one great love, Isabel, the family maid who loved him so fiercely. From an early age, Louis always had a zealous interest in capturing sunlight and the images he thought were carried inside it.
After he first kisses Isabel amid the tannic air of a wine quarry, Louis promises that someday he will be a famous artist and that he
will take her to be his wife. All she wants, however, is to remain friends; he is far too young for her,
and she sees him as a mere "child who is in love with a woman."
Louis eventually travels to Paris and obtains an apprenticeship as a set designer with Ignace Degotti, the master scenic painter at the Theatre Clementine. Frustrated at his lack of progress, his efforts to capture the world around him takes place during a tumultuous time for France.
The revolution has topsy-turvied the nation's mind and soul, and the country is awash in eclecticism and revolutionary zeal.
Awakened to the possibilities of the "hard-edged light" of Paris, Louis presses on, inventing and patenting the diorama and once again meeting up with Isabel and a bohemian prostitute named Pigeon, who ironically ends up unlocking the key to Louis's romantic past.
Author Dominic Smith's languid, leisurely prose flawlessly reflects the turbulent France during the Napoleonic era, when war, disease and social unrest were common occurrences and where revolution was often an unalterable fact of life.
Louis will not be distracted in his quest to capture time and man's reflection though nature's blueprints, transcripts of light, all of it replicated in nuance, shadow and substance. For much of the novel, we see Louis plagued by mercury poisoning – the stomach cramps, headaches and soreness in the mouth and jaw. Yet he is still able to fulfill his destiny and reconnect with his lost love.
At the novel's end, Louis and Isobel do stumble upon a kind of peace, even in the bleakness of her regret at not having married for love. Compassionate and beautifully realized, Smith's protagonists are finally able to lift "the gauze that softened life's edges and to live unflinchingly at the frayed edges of the world."