It’s a pleasure to share my review of The Woman in the Photograph by Stephanie Butland, published today (11th July) by Zaffre, available as an e-book, in paperback and as an audiobook. My thanks to the publishers for my advance reading ecopy, provided via netgalley.
I suspect many people will have discovered Stephanie Butland’s writing through Lost For Words – which I still, rather to my shame, haven’t read – or even more recently through The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae (you’ll find my review of that one here). I found her a great deal earlier – back in April 2014, with Surrounded By Water (review here), which was later published in paperback and for kindle as Letters to my Husband to considerable critical acclaim. Having rediscovered her writing, and determined never to neglect her books again, I was both surprised and delighted to find that her latest is something very different indeed…
1968. Veronica Moon, a junior photographer for a local newspaper, is frustrated by her (male) colleagues’ failure to take her seriously. And then she meets Leonie on the picket line of the Ford factory at Dagenham. So begins a tumultuous, passionate and intoxicating friendship. Leonie is ahead of her time and fighting for women’s equality with everything she has. She offers Veronica an exciting, free life at the dawn of a great change.
Fifty years later, Leonie is gone, and Veronica leads a reclusive life. Her groundbreaking career was cut short by one of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century.
Now, that controversial picture hangs as the centrepiece of a new feminist exhibition curated by Leonie’s niece. Long-repressed memories of Veronica’s extraordinary life begin to stir. It’s time to break her silence, and step back into the light.
There have been many books with a focus on first wave feminism, and it was really refreshing to find a book that instead explored its background during a period I lived through, from the 1960s onward. Like most women of my age, I can remember the strike at Dagenham, the protest at the Miss World ceremony, the women’s peace camps at Greenham Common – but I was perhaps too young to fully understand the issues. It was a wonderful experience to be more than a distant observer: this book allowed me to witness that period of change first hand, and also through the key images captured through the lens of the author’s fictional photographer, Veronica Moon.
The book opens with a visit to an exhibition – the 2018 retrospective of Veronica’s work – and an introduction to the controversial photograph that ended her career. An extract follows, from her unpublished book, then a description – the legend that accompanies a photograph in the exhibition – and a series of historical references for 1968, the year of the book’s opening. And then we meet Veronica herself – a junior photographer on the Colchester Echo, living with her dad and destined to become a wife and mother, who decides to visit the Dagenham Ford factory in her own time to photograph the picket line. There, she meets Leonie – and it’s a meeting that changes her life.
That structure continues throughout – along with Leonie’s published “Letters from a Feminist” – and I’ll admit I wasn’t entirely sure about it at first. But it soon ceases to be “difficult”, instead providing a very original structure that enables the reader to “see” each photograph and frame it in its context, and it works exceptionally well.
The characters are wonderful – I particularly loved the way Veronica herself grew and developed, and the complex and moving friendship between her and Leonie. Leonie herself is more difficult to like: she’s everything that perhaps repelled – and certainly frightened – women less committed to the cause at that time, but her character is never anything but entirely “real”, true to her age and time, never a stereotype.
As well as moving forward through Veronica’s extraordinary life and experiences in the world she becomes part of while capturing its key moments, there’s a present day story – we see Veronica in later life, as the exhibition of her work approaches. The thread slowly resolves some of the issues that have blighted her later life, and reveals the full story behind that single photograph that had such a devastating impact. The exhibition is being organised by Leonie’s niece Erica – another strong character, with interesting glimpses of her present day life that raise important questions around the current state of female parity and the caregiving roles.
In her reading group questions at the end of the book, the author asks whether the key photographs are brought to life with her words – the answer is an emphatic “yes”, to the extent that I began to question whether they were real. I really thought I could remember some of them – but although the “moments” undoubtedly happened, it’s the reader’s imagination that creates the images. And there are other “moments” throughout the book that you hold in your memory with the vividness of photographs – the buying of drinks in a public bar, the male endorsement needed for a mortgage application (yes, I’m old enough to remember both…), the power of throwing a lipstick into the gutter.
This book packs a very powerful emotional punch – and while its context is perhaps its core, I was equally enthralled by the smaller scale personal story, the overwhelming strength of the female friendship while realistically portraying the women’s differences, the slow uncovering of long hidden secrets.
I thought this book was quite superb – brave and different, an unflinching look at a struggle that still continues and that it’s all too easy to overlook and take for granted, coupled with an immensely engaging personal story. It’s also beautifully told, and a totally compelling read – I recommend it most highly.
Praise for The Woman in the Photograph:
‘Imaginative and moving novel – a must-read for any feminist’ Katie Fforde
‘I absolutely loved The Woman in the Photograph, a compelling, original and thought-provoking look at feminism and the power of female friendships’ Sarah Franklin
‘What a glorious combination: Stephanie’s warm intelligence brought to bear on the complexities of second-wave feminism. I ate the book up’ Shelley Harris
‘Refreshing and thought-provoking . . . a stirring exploration of female friendship and the fight for equality’ Carys Bray
About the author
Stephanie Butland is a novelist who fell in love with performance poetry when researching her novel Lost For Words. Her first two books were about her dance with cancer. She then turned to fiction. Her previous novels are Letters To My Husband, The Other Half Of My Heart, Lost For Words and The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae. Stephanie lives in Northumberland. She writes in a studio at the bottom of her garden, and when she’s not writing, she trains people to think more creatively.