To whom does a beautiful photograph of a terrible event belong?

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“Self-Portrait with Boy”

by Rachel Lyon

Scribner, 373 pp., $26

A boy falls to his death from the roof of a Brooklyn building at the same instant a naked photographer leaps in front of her camera and captures the awful moment. The image is an inadvertent masterpiece, beautiful and terrible, but who does it belong to? The aspiring artist who’d been making a self-portrait for 399 straight days and got tragically lucky on No. 400? Or the boy’s parents, the father a painter and the mother a model, brought to their knees by grief? Where does art end and exploitation begin?

William Faulkner knew the answer: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

Lu Rile, the photographer at the center of Rachel Lyon’s intriguing debut novel, “Self-Portrait with Boy,” isn’t so sure. Rile knows she’s captured lightning when she develops the film and realizes what she thought was “a reflection or a smudge, some imperfection … a bundle of laundry falling from above,” is 9-year-old Max Schubert-Fine, lovable scamp who took a wrong step on the roof of a decaying building where artists squatted in the early 1990s.

Author appearance

Rachel Lyon

The author of “Self-Portrait with Boy” will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, at Third Place Books in Ravenna, 6504 20th Ave. N.E., Seattle (206-525-2347 or

“There was his tangle of yellow hair in the wind,” Lyon writes. “A hint of silver zipper glinting brightly. “Five little fingers blurred upward like streaks of finger paint, just traces in the air. His little hand reaching up toward all he’d left.”

Rile is ambitious, “ruthless,” she tells us on the first page, right after she declares herself an unreliable narrator, one who “never meant for any of it to happen. Or no. Part of me meant for it to happen.” Her course of action after she develops “Self-Portrait #400” is to equivocate, befriending Max’s grief-choked mother, Kate Fine, while pursuing a gallery showing for the photograph. She wants to tell Kate, she really means to, but she can’t quite bring herself to do it, and the guilt starts to mess with her head.

“Self-Portrait with Boy” is a confident first novel with a lot going for it. The moral dilemma Lyon sets up is explored with intelligence and grace, from the epigraphs by W.H. Auden (“Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky …”) and Diane Arbus (“A photograph is a secret about a secret”) to the discussion of Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” a painting that inspired Auden and William Carlos Williams. The claw-mark greed of the New York art world is on full display, and so is the DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification, when developers paid drug addicts to squeeze out the artists and make room for the high-rises and tech startups that cover it today.

Best of all is Rile’s voice, snappish and self-aware and scared, taking on the world while being devoured by it, reaching out to touch the ghosts that float above the East River.