The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson: Echoes of The Go-Between in Jerusalem, 1920

Cover imageAs 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.

12 thoughts on “The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson: Echoes of The Go-Between in Jerusalem, 1920”

    1. Isn’t it! She writes very well about the goings-on in Jerusalem – seeds sown for all that’s come since in the Middle East – and Prue is an brilliantly drawn character.

  1. Sounds good, Susan. Your description of Prue reminds me a little of one of the characters in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, a young girl named Portia who is sent to live with her half-brother and his wife when her parents die. Like Prue, Portia is left to her own devices, watching and listening to the adults from a distance. Funnily enough, I have the Go-Between in my classics pile. Atonement sounds like an apt reference point too.

    1. That’s interesting, Jacqui. I read The Death of the Heart decades ago so it’s lost down my memory chute! It’s a clever device if done well. I’ve often felt that McEwan owed a debt of gratitude to Hartley, but actually the Bowen precedes The Go-between so I think I’ve missed a link out of the chain.

  2. ifucanrememberituwerentthere

    I couldn’t get into The Photographer’s Wife but I’ll give it another go.

  3. So many things about this book sound good; the time and place, the characters, and especially the fact that Prue is let loose in Jerusalem at the age of 12. Just the thought of my kids being let loose anywhere gives me the shivers.
    And comparing her to Briony in Atonement has me intrigued. That book (and her part in it) really got to me.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Charles is far from the model parent that’s for sure. I think the device of a young child, left to fend for themselves one way or another, can work very well in fiction. It throws a clear light on adult behaviour.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Thank you, Cleo. She uses that ‘child caught up things she really shouldn’t be’ device very well.

  4. I love this cover as well. So eye-catching. This one’s been on my radar for a little while, but after reading your review, I’m definitely keen to get to it sooner rather than later. I absolutely loved The Go-Between and Atonement, so I think The Photographer’s Wife might be just my kind of book.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Isn’t it gorgeous? I do hope you enjoy the book – Prue is a brilliantly realised character.

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