I’m an assiduous viewer of Channel 4 News – I’d probably be a happier person if I wasn’t – and have often wondered how it feels to report on the dreadful mess of human misery that is war. I’ve thought the same when looking at those stark images you see in newspapers, some becoming emblematic of particular conflicts. The moral dilemma of bearing witness as opposed to getting stuck in and helping those in distress is an eternal conundrum. And what does it do to those who make it their life’s work? These are the themes that Catherine Hall explores in her moving and thought-provoking novel.
It begins with Jo’s narrative addressed to her ex-lover, Susie. Jo has just returned from Afghanistan, taking refuge in her Aunt Edith’s Brighton flat, now hers since Edith’s death a few weeks ago. She’s in a state of shock, in desperate need of unburdening herself. This has been her second stint in the country. The first was a decade ago, just after 9/11. There have been many wars in between her two visits, many atrocities witnessed, but this time the horror was more personal. Not entirely sure why she had decided to return, Jo settled on a set of photographs about the commonplace domestic violence dealt out to women by their husbands and male relatives in the name of honour, enlisting the help of Rashida freshly graduated from her journalism course. Things did not end well. To distract herself, Jo reads the diary she finds tucked away in her aunt’s desk. It’s the journal of Elizabeth Willoughby who worked alongside the medical staff at Brighton Pavilion where Indian Army casualties were cared for during the First World War, well away from their white British comrades.
It’s a far from uncommon device to have a character stumble across a diary written long ago, then alternate its contents with a present day narrative. It can often be horribly clunky – the worst example I can think of is Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – but if done well each can illuminate the other, and Hall manages this beautifully. The strictures on the behaviour of women in Afghanistan are echoed in the forbidding of Elizabeth from nursing Indian soldiers thereby compromising her reputation. Her fiancé’s – to our eyes – obvious shell shock is echoed in the nightmares in which the many atrocities Jo has seen are re-enacted. Historical context is lightly delivered, deftly wrapped into both narratives. Hall’s exploration of the morality of war photography and its effects on those who practice it are vivid and immediate. All this is achieved in an intensely involving story – moving, poignant and often surprising. It’s a novel which succeeds in treating a deadly serious subject in a gripping, humane and thoroughly engrossing way. I’m looking forward to seeing what Hall does next.
I read this on the train yesterday, on my way to London to meet M at the wonderful Dishoom in Covent Garden. I usually take a slim novel on a train journey, something around 150-200 pages fits neatly in my bag, and on Wednesday evening I picked out Susana Fortes’s Waiting for Robert Capa.
I knew that Robert Capa was one of the founders of Magnum Photos, the renowned photographic co-operative which hosts many iconic images of the 20th and 21st century, but I hadn’t realised that the name and American identity was a construct thought up by his lover to help sell his work, or at least according to Fortes’s novel. She, too, was a photographer and she, too, changed her name (to Gerda Taro), but sadly she died before Magnum was set up. Fortes’s novel is both a passionate love story and a testament to the art and courage of those who put themselves at risk to record the stark realities of war. Capa and Taro, both Jewish, escaped the threat of the Nazi regime in their native countries – Capa from Hungary and Taro from Germany – but both threw themselves into the maelstrom of the Spanish Civil War which is where Capa made his name, hailed by Picture Post in 1938 as ‘The Greatest War Photographer in the World’. When reading a novel whose main protagonists are historical figures it’s all too easy to confuse fact with fiction but Fortes has clearly done a great deal of research and is careful to point out in a note at the back of the book that while the main events of the novel are factual much of the rest has been recreated using the ‘liberty that is the privilege of the novelist’. It’s an excellent, thought provoking novel but I should have kept it for home and given it the concentration it deserves. Even the quiet carriage has its distractions.
If Gerda Taro had survived would her name have been as celebrated as Capa’s, or would the fact that she was a woman have relegated her to a secondary position? Sadly, the latter still seems to be the case in so many instances. Yesterday the Guardian reported that Wikipedia have been slowly but surely moving entries for women novelists from their American Novelists pages to a new American Women Novelists category. All well and good except that they failed to rename the original category ‘American Male Novelists’. Outrage on social media has been such that the Wikipedians are now having to put the women back in their rightful position. In a year in which women are dominating the UK prize lists – in the Desmond Elliot Prize longlist, announced yesterday seven of the ten novels are written by women, and Hilary Mantel continues to sweep the board – it’s still the case that novels both written and reviewed by men dominate the books pages. It defies logic when anyone who’s worked in a bookshop will tell you that far more women than men buy books. But, then, sexism isn’t logical.