Book review: England, Jerusalem and a life in sepia

The novel's time and place are highly memorable.

There must some irony in this, though to be honest, I’m not certain exactly where: the second I finished reading a historical novel that is mainly atmosphere and not much substance, I started singing a late last century song in my head. Namely, Oops, I did it again by Britney Spears. That’s because I really was oops-ing, with much earnestness and not a little gloom. I’d thought that after 40 years of dedicated reading I’d have learned not to judge a book by its cover, but no. Given a choice by my editor between three books to read and review, I unerringly chose the one with pretty picture on the front and an evocative blurb at the back. And once again I found myself banging my head against the wall and singing that ghastly Britney Spears song.

To be fair, when I chose The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson, I did have a couple more solid reasons than the pretty picture and the back cover blurb. The book is set in a place as well as an era that I am endlessly fascinated by: Palestine and the years between the two World Wars. I couldn’t believe I’d get both in a single book — wow! Clearly, when something seems too good to be true, it is — grrr. The Photographer’s Wife centres on Prudence, an 11-year-old girl who, in 1920, is suddenly whisked away from her mother in England to live with her architect father in Jerusalem, a man who is planning to redesign the entire city to meet the British standards he prefers.

Prue has never been the centre of anybody’s world: her mother shows affection only intermittently, when she’s in the mood for it, and her father shows no affection at all, only an occasional interest in her talent for art. So when Prue meets Eleanora, an Englishwoman married to Jerusalem’s best-known photographer, who welcomes her to the Holy City with a gift that no imaginative person could believe was anything less than magical, she feels, for the first time, a real sense of self, of her own existence, of mattering to somebody.

Eleanora is often without her husband, a man who has made it his mission to travel to Palestine and photograph atrocities committed by the British who, in that colonial era long before the existence of Israel, “own” Palestine. There’s much for him to capture on film: the local chief of police — naturally, British — is not only the worst kind of racist, but went mad due to several consecutive bouts of malaria during the World War that ended just two years ago.

With Prue for company and to serve as an assistant, Eleanora begins a career as a professional photographer in her own right, recreating areas of Jerusalem and its surroundings with local models to resemble places mentioned in the Bible, all for sale to Jerusalem’s many Christian visitors. Prue has never felt so wanted in her life, so she’s not happy when she learns that her father has hired William Harrington, a pilot Eleanora knows, to work for him. Harrington will steal Eleanora away from her, she knows, and she’s right. One afternoon, Eleanora simply dismisses Prue. And now Prue means nothing to anybody.

Actually, that isn’t really true. Prue has anger and spite — and, thanks to her father, access to documents. That gives meaning to her Arabic tutor at least, a man who is a secret nationalist and who has taught her a secret code. Joinson switches often between Prue’s 1920 story and her 1937 story, in which she is separated from her husband and living with her small son on the very edge of the sea in the north of England. She’s a well-known sculptor and lives a ramshackle life, wondering every so often if she’s really capable of loving and looking after her son.

Her life is solitary by choice. She has a part-time lover, but that’s all. Then, one day, William Harrington reappears in her life and suddenly she’s back in the past, where she must go whether she likes it or not, or else lose her son. I liked a lot about The Photographer’s Wife, right from the beginning of the book to the end. The writing is evocative — it took me right into the time and place that its back cover blurb promised me, complete with the feeling that I was reading in sepia. But even as I turned the pages, knowing I’d remember this passage and that for many years to come, feeling part of the setting, I knew that the story didn’t cut it at all.

There’s a vagueness to it; a sense that for the author, the time and place of her creative work meant more than the plot and storyline. So even as I lost myself in the book’s setting and era, I fulminated against the characters, their motivations and the sheer bleah-ness of a whole book that could have been so much more than it is. Ultimately, The Photographer’s Wife is one of those books that will give me a sense of déjà vu every now and again for the rest of my life, plunging me into feelings I’ll be certain I felt before, but in no context that I will be able to recall. The novel’s time and place are highly memorable. But I’ll have forgotten the existence of the book in less than a month. Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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