I’ve been an admirer of Georgina Harding’s writing since reading her debut with its poetically beautiful descriptive passages. Each of her four novels is very different from the other although three share the theme of the aftermath of war. Set in 1616 The Solitude of Thomas Cave took us to the Arctic where one man elects to leave the whaling ship that brought him there and stay for a year. The Spy Game leapt forward to 1961 with a little girl piecing together an explanation for herself about her mother’s disappearance. The Painter of Silence has 1950s Romania as its backdrop where a man, both deaf and mute, discovers a connection with a young nurse that helps him unlock his past. Set in Asia at the time of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Japanese economic boom, Harding’s new novel is about a young photographer trying to cope with the shadow thrown by not one but two wars.
Jonathan Ashe has managed to hitch a ride in a helicopter but what was to be merely a chance to see what the country looks like turns into something else when the pilot spots a village under fire. Jonathan sees a young woman, her body splayed on the ground with a stomach wound clearly visible. Then he thinks he sees a soldier shoot her in the head. By the time they land, the action is over. Jonathan photographs a soldier sitting, stunned, then finds the young woman dead, shot in the head. He returns to the soldier, still in the same position oblivious of Jonathan’s presence, and takes the emblematic photograph that will appear on the front of a magazine changing both their lives. Deeply disturbed by what he’s seen, Jonathan turns his back on a career in war photography that had only just begun, taking himself off to Japan in an attempt to lose himself in its foreignness. He takes photographs endlessly – the daily changing view from his apartment window, milling passengers at metro stations – an outsider constantly observing. When he runs out of money he turns to teaching English, meeting Kumiko at the language school and falling in love with her, until a chance encounter brings him face to face with what happened in Vietnam. Running through Jonathan’s story are the reverberations of another war in which both his father and Kumiko’s grandfather fought.
Impossible for those who’ve seen Don McCullin’s striking image Shell Shocked Soldier not to see it as the starting point for this beautifully expressed, impressionistic but powerful novel. Harding hangs her narrative on the framework of the photographs Jonathan selects for his first exhibition interspersing it with memories which illuminate and slowly reveal his life and character. Over it all hangs the shadow of war and its aftermath for those who have witnessed or taken part in it. There’s a quiet elegance about Harding’s writing which vividly conveys Jonathan’s need for anonymity in an attempt to escape the inescapable: the horror of what both he – and his father before him – have seen. The moral ambiguity of war photography is also explored: ‘He has seen, or possibly he has done, whatever it was that put that look into his eyes. Is it necessary that he did it, or was seeing enough? Perhaps seeing is guilt in itself?’ thinks Jonathan when contemplating the photograph of the soldier and, by implication, his own role. It’s a novel which leaves its readers with much to think about as well as much to admire.