Friday, February 19, 2016

Reassembling the past: The Photographer's Wife by Suzanne Joinson

It was hard to get a handle on the plot of The Photographer’s Wife. For a good long while, I felt like I was glimpsing the characters and their situations through fractured glass.  Individual scenes were clear, but the full picture of the characters and motivations remained muddled until close to the end. It made for a distancing reading experience.

On the other hand, the style meshes well with the novel’s themes of dislocation and the resurfacing of the past in unexpected ways.

The heroine isn’t the woman of the title but an 11-year-old British girl, Prue Ashton, sent to live with her father in Jerusalem in 1920, after her mother is placed in a mental institution. Charles Ashton, appointed as a civic adviser, has a plan to redesign the city in orderly English fashion, complete with gardens and trees, and without understanding how disruptive it would be to local culture or religious laws.

Neglected by her father, Prue roams around alone with her Kodak, gets tutored in Arabic by a Turkish man, Ihsan Tameri, and becomes caught up in intrigues beyond her ken which play out among the adults around her. These include the past shared between pilot William Harrington, a shell-shocked veteran hired to survey the city by air, and beautiful Eleanora Rasul, wife of a famous Arab photographer. Prue's also too young to take in the surreptitious plans of the Arab nationalist movement, or Ihsan’s true motives for spending time with the lonely girl.

Seventeen years later, Prue is a sculptor living in a ramshackle environment on England's south coast, a divorcee with a six-year-old son, Skip. She has repeated the pattern set by her own early life, letting Skip run wild while focusing her intense passions on her art. Then a visiting journalist starts asking odd questions – ones not dealing with her profession, but the half-year she spent in Jerusalem as a child.

The story spreads out over multiple periods, and with flashbacks nested inside flashbacks, which feels rather unsettling.  Intensifying this feeling are the many characters with unsavory incidents in their pasts, and who are difficult to warm to.

Amid the impressionistic prose are thoughtful and striking meditations on the settings and themes:

Most people – she had discovered – gave it great symbolism, arriving in Jerusalem. They had planned it and read and dreamed and thought about it for such a long time before coming and they all seemed to have such hopes about the city and when they got here they were always rather cross. It was never quite what they were looking for.

I highlighted this phrase, and others, but what kept me reading was the desire to know how everything came together. What transformed Prue from an eager-to-please, precocious girl into a defiantly independent woman? What secrets from the past does she unknowingly hold?

This book is for those who appreciate atmospheric literary fiction and character-centered mysteries, provided they have sufficient patience and don’t mind the company of difficult, selfish people.

The Photographer's Wife was published this month by Bloomsbury USA ($26.00, hb, 352pp).  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley request.


  1. Anonymous7:26 AM

    Your review is a more positive one than others I've come across, Sarah, and makes me want to read it. There's a little dollop of a mystery in there, if I'm not mistaken. And I adore character-driven literary novels.

    1. Yes, there's a mystery about what really happened back in Jerusalem - and while I'm not sure if the payoff is worth the convoluted path it takes to get there, the characters and language are what made the book interesting for me. Even if I didn't like the people much! I have very mixed feelings about it, as you can see...

  2. Apparently, we share certain views of this book, though you seem to have liked it much better than I did.

    1. Going by what you have in your review, I'd say "slightly better." Feeling disoriented and in the company of unpleasant people isn't really my cup of tea, although the novel had its strong points.

      I reread the first few chapters after I finished it, and picked up a greater understanding about the characters and events from that... which improved my opinion somewhat.

      Have you read the New York Times review? It's one of the more positive ones out there.

  3. No, I saw only the reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Maybe I'll trace the NYT review . . . not that they're infallible.