I recently finished Michelle Richmond's novel, The Year of Fog, a book I’d delayed reading because the topic, the disappearance of a child, was similar to that of my own novel-in-progress. My hesitation was twofold: I didn’t want to be too influenced by what I read while I was still working on my own book, and I was afraid I might find she’d already written the story I was still working to finish, particularly since San Francisco is one of the settings for both her story and mine. I’d had her book in my hands several times in the past year when browsing at bookstores, but always put it back on the shelf. However, that book kept appearing in front of me, most recently as a Kindle offering, and I figured there must be a reason.
The main character in The Year of Fog is a woman named Abby, a photographer, who takes the young daughter of her fiancé for a walk on Ocean Beach near The Great Highway, where the girl disappears. Abby takes photographs as they walk in and out of the fog along the beach where young Emma searches for sand dollars, and when Abby is distracted for a few seconds Emma disappears into the fog – either the victim of abduction or a drowning.
Richmond’s narrative has depth and her prose is often poetic as she explores the psychology of loss, the function of memory, and the artistic drive that compels a person to become a photographer. Her characters are richly drawn and complex, particularly Abby who struggles to find answer’s to Emma’s disappearance within her photographs, a truth the images fail to reveal.
In a sense, photographs serve to stop time and allow us to hold on to the past, but those frozen milliseconds may produce images that are no more accurate than memory. Images and memory alike are affected by perspective and context, and each person who views a photograph brings his or her own story to what they see, consciously or not. It’s much the same with writing, where both the reader and the writer bring something to the page.
With The Year of Fog I savored reading about some of my favorite places in San Francisco, a city I love and miss. When we lived there, my husband and I often photographed at the Sutro Bath ruins and along the cliff trails at Land’s End, which are settings in Richmond’s book. In looking through my old slides and negatives for an appropriate image to post here, I was flooded with memories of our own walks together along Ocean Beach near the Great Highway and the Cliff House, of how huge waves could suddenly surge in through the fog with a roaring crash, of how deceptively serene it could look at low tide on a clear day, and of how far the water could rise at high tide. A bit alarmed at the hours consumed by the task of searching through old photographs, I had some second thoughts about whether starting this blog was a good idea. Would it be even more of a distraction than I initially feared? Then I realized that part of what I was feeling was the deep emotion those images have the ability to evoke in me, and that my file boxes store away much that I want to write about. Best of all, I’m out photographing again, which has me falling in love with Pittsburgh once more.
Richmond’s book serves as an inspiration for me to continue working on my own novel until I’m satisfied that it’s what I want it to be. I needn’t have worried that our stories would be too similar. We all have different stories – stories that only we can tell, spun and filtered through our own imaginations. And Michelle Richmond’s The Year of Fog is one written in perfect light.
Photo Credit: Ocean Beach, San Francisco, copyright (c) 1980 by Dory Adams