Book Review: Heartbreaking and evocative, Depth of Field is Kirsty Iltner’s incredible debut

Depth of Field

A portrait of two people, of their grief and regrets and relationships, Depth of Field is author and photographer Kirsty Iltners’ emotionally charged and deeply effective debut novel. It was the winner of the 2023 Dorothy Hewett Award, and it’s a beautiful novel well deserving of its accolades.

Told through simple yet evocative prose, Depth of Field follows the lives (and pasts) of two main characters. The first, Tom, is an accountant turned real estate photographer morning the idyllic relationship he once had (or at least, the version he remembers), barely holding on by drinking wine and indulging in a low-commitment relationship. His sections follow him as he works, grieves, and retreads his past relationships.

The other character, Lottie, is a penniless teen mother fresh out of high school, struggling to navigate a hostile world and trying to build friendships despite never feeling like she quite fits in. Despite being with her daughter Coral constantly, she is isolated, alone and unable to ask for help. The perspective shifts between these two, and between the past and present.

It’s a story told slowly, less of a series of building events and more of a slow unveiling of the things that have been happening out of the reader’s sight (or to use the novel’s photography-based metaphor, which lie just out of frame). Much of the narration is unreliable, or at least selective, and fully willing to let the reader make incorrect assumptions – especially for those sections told through the haze of fond memories. It makes for an intriguing way to explore the lives of these characters, and as everything comes into focus the tragic twists and turns feel more like a confession than a reveal, something the characters knew all along but which the reader did not.

And it is a tragedy, there is no doubt about that. While the events unfold slowly, the emotions build and build, until finally everything is revealed and the worlds of our once-disparate protagonists collide, into a heart-wrenching, yet hopeful, climax. Grief and regret flavours so much of the novel’s tender prose and is suffused into the characters. It is all told beautifully, evocatively, to the point that there were times I had to put the book down – it was overwhelming. Which is something that speaks to the novel’s strengths.

For a story like this, well-written – or at least interesting – characters are an essential, and that’s another point Depth of Field succeeds on. Much of Tom’s character fits the classic literary fiction male protagonist: melancholic and unsatisfied with the direction his life has taken. But, it’s executed well, and his status as a bit of an unreliable narrator introduces a hint of intrigue to his sections. Our second protagonist Lottie is a tragic figure, and one I couldn’t help feel for right from the beginning as she deals with the social and financial stresses of being a teen mother while musing on her relationship with her own parents. Her story occupies less of the book than Tom’s, and had a depressing weight to it, but I couldn’t help but look forward to her side of the narrative and to root for her life to get even a little easier.

With the novel’s framing style and its masterful interweaving of two very different protagonists, it is perhaps no surprise that this novel is being described as poignant. The slow pace, thoughtful style and frequent delves into the past – revealing information that changes how we perceive the characters in the present – all serve to create a novel with a lot to say about a myriad of subjects. Memory, its fallibility and our ability to ignore or rewrite the past takes centre stage in a sad yet at times relatable discussion, but it’s also a story about relationships, how we justify our mistakes in past partnerships and on the connections which come with parenthood. It all combines to create a narrative with rich undercurrents which invite reflection.

There is no denying how powerful Depth of Field is, how effectively and easily it breaks your heart, how it hides its secrets before bringing them back into focus slowly, how it grips your mind until you are done reading. I highly recommend this one – and I look forward to reading more of what Kirsty Iltners writes in the future.


Depth of Field by Kirsty Iltners is out now from UWA Publishing. Get yourself a copy from Booktopia HERE.