We are usually taught that World War I began, officially, on 28 July 1914 and ended 11 November 1918. History texts and teachers like neat dates; it makes testing easier. When we look closer, the reality is a lot more messy. The Balkan Wars (a significant contributing factor) ran from 1912 to 1913. The French had been pissed off at the Germans, especially the Prussians, since 1870. And the “war” didn’t end for everyone in November of 1918. We we call World War I (and World War II) were really a bunch of conflicts that all blended into one huge, bloody, sprawl. The reason I bring all this up is because Suzanne Joinson’s novel, The Photographer’s Wife, gives us a closer look at the further disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the Palestinian Mandate after the official end of hostilities. The characters in this book give us a ring side seat as the British try to sort things out, Arabs try to claim independence, and Jews, Armenians, and other ethnic minorities try to hold on to what they’d managed to claim so far. The Photographer’s Wife is also about memory and how some things can never be forgotten.
The Photographer’s Wife jumps around in time from, mostly, 1920, to 1927, 1933, 1937, and 1942. Our primary guide is Prudence Ashton. In the 1930s and 40s, she is a budding sculptor with a philandering, unsettling husband and a precocious son. In 1920, she’s the neglected 11-year-old daughter of an architect who was hired by the British to urbanize Jerusalem and the surrounding area. It isn’t hard to pity Prue. She was summoned to Jerusalem when her mother was institutionalized. But her father and sister have no time for her. Her father, Charles, is busy making plans to tear down and rebuild significant parts of the city. Her sister, Eleanora (the eponymous photographer’s wife), is trying to make a living as a photographer while her husband, an Arab, is traveling around the Mandate photographing the British as they terrorize the Arabs.
Our secondary narrator is William Harrington, a pilot who’s afraid of flying. He’s signed on as a pilot for an aerial surveying job only as a way of getting close to Eleanora. He wants her to leave her husband and go back to Europe with him. He is not as interesting as Prue, unfortunately.
There’s an awful lot going on in The Photographer’s Wife. The story is, frankly, overstuffed. If it had only been about Prudence, William, or Eleanora, the book would have worked much better. It seemed like every time I got invested in one character’s narrative, the perspective would shift and I would have to try and care about someone else. Also, I was constantly irritated by the fact that the title of the book is misleading. It should have been called The Architect’s Daughter*, something that wouldn’t serve as a distraction from the actual content of the book.
I kept reading The Photographer’s Wife because there was just enough development of some themes to hold me. I was very interested in how Prue’s memories of atrocities surfaced in her art. I was interested in how clueless the British officials were about the history of their new territory and its people. I enjoyed that I got a peek into a corner of the world re-shaping itself after the fall of a centuries-old empire. If this book had contained less, it would have been a lot more effective.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 2 February 2016.
* It might just be me, but I find that I am more and more annoyed by this style of title. Why to female characters always have to be defined by their relationship to a male character?