Saturday, February 13, 2016

Through a Darkened Lens


The Photographers Wife by Suzanne Joinson


In one of the most beautifully written works of historical fiction, Joinson goes from Jerusalem in 1920 to Shoreham, England in 1937 through Prudence (or Prue). Prue at 11 in Jerusalem is with her architect father and his plans to chart and change the city, with the help of Eleanora Rasul's aerial photographs. When William Harrington, the pilot hired to fly Eleanora, comes to see Prue in 1937 in Shoreham, her past comes with him.

I have to reiterate just how impressed I was with the writing of this novel. Joinson is one of those writers who infuses her narrative with evocative phrases and nuance of language that rivals even such masterful artists as Ondaatje. Every setting gets its own treatment, and comes to life through her prose. Moreover, Joinson gets into the minds of her characters and allows the images of their wandering thought processes to gain their own voices. This is the main reason why once you pick up this novel, you'll probably want to read it to the end.

With such praise, you might be wondering why I'm not giving this book a higher star rating. The fact is, despite the luscious writing style, there were things about this book that didn't work for me. For example, Joinson writes all of the 1920 sections using third person, while most of the 1937 parts are in first person, from Prue's point of view. While this helps the reader identify the era of the action with ease, this also somewhat distances us from the characters we meet in Jerusalem. Since the bulk of the action takes place during that period, the use of third person disconnects us from the story as a whole. In addition, the sparseness of the 1937 parts of the story, despite being in Prue's first person voice, doesn't make us feel much closer to Prue.

I think it's important to note that Prue is the main protagonist in this book, but she isn't the photographer's wife. That character is Eleanora, and in fact, it occurred to me that she is actually Prue and William's protagonist. While this explains the title of the book, it was confusing to me, since I kept wondering why we didn't get to know more about Eleanora. Furthermore, there's even a point in the story when Eleanora, and what became of her after 1920, suddenly seems like an afterthought, if not totally forgotten. I would have thought that the titular character should have gotten more respect than this, and if not, then the title is misleading. (Anyway, haven't we had enough books entitled "The {insert profession/type of person here}'s Wife" by now?)

I should also mention that I am doubtful of certain aspects of the history here, and know that at least one piece was just plain wrong. Yes, we allow a certain amount of poetic license in historical fiction, but there are some undeniable facts that fiction should never change. (For example, you can't let the Titanic cross the Atlantic without hitting the iceberg, unless your story takes place in an alternative universe where that didn't happen.) In this particular case, my own knowledge probably worked as a disadvantage, because unless you have a fair amount of knowledge of the history of British Mandate Palestine, you probably won't catch this mistake. However, to her credit, Joinson must have done some research; otherwise, she would never have known that the winter of 1920 saw historically heavy snowfalls in Jerusalem (to date, that was the heaviest snowfall for the city in recorded history).

However, my biggest problem with this book is that for me, the story just wasn't compelling enough. I had a hard time feeling as if I knew or understood the characters - partially because of the changes in the point of view. More importantly, I often felt that Joinson let her lovely poetry get in the way of both the characters and the story line. To be brutally honest, if Joinson's lyrical writing style hadn't been so enjoyable, I probably would have quit reading this book half way through. Therefore, while I'm glad this book introduced me to Joinson's talent, and recommend this book to anyone looking for wonderful writing; I can't give it more than three and a half stars out of five.



"The Photographer's Wife" by Suzanne Joinson, published by Bloomsbury, released February 2, 2016, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK (pre-order), Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.