It’s a particular pleasure today to join the blog tour and share my review of the wonderful The Photographer of the Lost by Caroline Scott, published in hardback and for kindle on 31st October by Simon & Schuster: it’s also available as an audiobook, with the paperback to follow in June 2020. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley).
Until she knows her husband’s fate, she cannot decide her own…
An epic novel of forbidden love, loss, and the shattered hearts left behind in the wake of World War I
1921. Families are desperately trying to piece together the fragments of their broken lives. While many survivors of the Great War have been reunited with their loved ones, Edie’s husband Francis has not come home. He is considered ‘missing in action’, but when Edie receives a mysterious photograph taken by Francis in the post, hope flares. And so she beings to search.
Harry, Francis’s brother, fought alongside him. He too longs for Francis to be alive, so they can forgive each other for the last things they ever said. Both brothers shared a love of photography and it is that which brings Harry back to the Western Front. Hired by grieving families to photograph gravesites, as he travels through battle-scarred France gathering news for British wives and mothers, Harry also searches for evidence of his brother. And as Harry and Edie’s paths converge, they get closer to a startling truth.
Every so often, a book comes along that makes me doubt whether I’ll ever be able to write an adequate review – this is, without question, one of those books. I’ve read many books set against the horror of the First World War – I’ve even read some excellent books about the aftermath, the search for the lost and the lasting grief of the survivors – but this powerful book with its finest of writing perhaps moved me more deeply than any other.
The photographer of the title is Harry, the survivor of three brothers, commissioned in 1921 to take photographs for grieving relatives of the graves of the lost – or where the location of their graves might be unknown, as it was for so many, of locations made significant from their last letters. Harry’s journey is dogged by both guilt and vivid memories, as he witnesses the aftermath of the conflict that so tragically affected his life. Edie, the widow of his brother Francis, is on her own journey – triggered by a photograph sent in an envelope with a blurred postmark that gives her hope that her husband may still be alive. The story moves between life at the front during the war and the ruined landscape that remains, the surviving communities, the horrifying scale of the graveyards, the complete obliteration of so much that was there before.
The wartime scenes are some of the most stunning I’ve read – I’d always thought Birdsong was the gold standard in making a reader feel present during a conflict, feeling every emotion of those involved, but I might just have changed my mind. The vividness of the description is exceptional, but I think its power is multiplied because of the strength of the characterisation, the way every individual is drawn in such detail, the way the author enables you to share their sheer terror as the long anticipation becomes stark reality. The book deals in feelings, the unbearable anguish of those who remain, but never veers into mawkishness or sentimentality – that strong characterisation features in the post-war encounters too, every character in their context, their reactions and emotions described in a way you feel at your core.
The book’s atmosphere is one of immense sadness, devastating loss, and overwhelming guilt in the survivors – but with a faint glimmer of hope for the future shimmering in the distance. There’s that central mystery around Francis’ fate that needs resolution – in fact, there’s more than one, as other stories emerge to be explored – and an intensely moving love story: the threads are quite wonderfully handled, the outcomes sometimes unexpected. But what will most stay with me about this book is how it made me feel – the many tears I shed, for the lost, for those who mourned them, and for the many whose lives would never be the same again.
About the author
Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on the landscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in southwest France.