As regular readers may have noticed, I tend to bang on a bit about book jackets. They’re the first thing a reader sees after all, the first step along the way to reading a book – or not. Suzanne Joinson’s novel is a fine example of getting it right: the cover’s striking and it fits the book well. Set in 1920, The Photographer’s Wife follows the eleven-year-old daughter of an architect commissioned to design new plans for Jerusalem, let loose on her own in a city fractured by a multitude of interests and fraught with danger.
Prue is sent to live with her father when her mother suffers a breakdown after the death of their second child. Charles lives in the Hotel Fast with his mistress, far too caught up in himself, his work and the social life of this city where all the British seem to know each other, to keep a parental eye on his daughter. Left almost entirely to her own devices, Prue looks and listens – hiding behind curtains, crawling under tables – hearing and seeing things she shouldn’t. Lonely and outcast, she attaches herself to Eleanora, married to an Arab photographer intent on recording the brutality perpetrated by the British out in the desert. Eleanora befriends Prue, suggesting she learns Arabic with Ihsan who listens intently as she recounts what she overhears. Into this mix steps William, commissioned by Charles to provide aerial photographs of the city and its surrounds, ostensibly to help him complete his architectural plans. A casualty of the First World War, both physically and mentally, William has come to Jerusalem to find Eleanora with whom he has been in love for many years. Against this complicated political and personal backdrop, Joinson unfolds her story of duplicity, espionage and thwarted love all of which will come back to haunt both Prue and William.
Joinson’s novel flits back and forth between Prue’s childhood and her rackety life in Shoreham in 1937, living with her six-year-old son in a beach hut and working on her sculpture. Much of the narrative is from Prue’s eleven-year-old point of view, vividly conveying the febrile atmosphere of a city in which the British cosy up to Nazis and Armenians rub shoulders with both, all of them laying claim to what isn’t theirs. Desperate for attention, Prue is easy prey for manipulation and is frequently in danger. Her experience will have terrible repercussions for her, echoing L. P. Hartley’s Leo Colston in The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis in Atonement. It’s a clever device, and Joinson uses it well. For me the passages written from William’s point of view were less convincing but that’s a minor quibble. Altogether a story well told, and a sobering reminder that we’re still reaping what was sown nearly a century later.