The French Photographer by Natasha Lester

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

This is a compelling story based on a real Vogue model who became a photojournalist during World War II. This story traces the real woman’s escapades in France with a totally fictional account of a woman in modern day times struggling to understand the relationship that appears to have existed between her mother and a modern day mysterious supplier of peerless photographs.

Without a doubt the quality of the cover is diminished by the cheaper paper on which the story is written – necessarily so because of the need to keep publishing costs low. Christabella Designs, Muna Nuzak and Shutterstock have combined their talents to produce a front cover that is simply superb, from its tonal values and muted backing to a truly beautiful model.

The structure of the story will not suit everyone in that it begins in 1942 France then skips to June 2004 then back to London in 1944 and seesaws backwards and forwards in time with characters in each time frame up to two generations apart. My frustration grew, not just with the time switching but with having to leave a set of circumstances with their particular characters to turn my attention away to reabsorb the alternative time frame. It was the interruption to the mindset of the readers which I found harrowing. One expects with this sort of structure that the protagonist in wartime is not up to the same calibre as in the present. Thankfully, the author has created in D’Arcy a character every bit as strong as Jess in wartime.

Natasha Lester has a nice touch in her attention to detail. A fine example of London in wartime is provided in:

So, after a short break, where she spent as much time as she could outside, tracing the unfamiliar geography of a wounded city where bedrolls littered tube stations and women with scarves wrapped around their hair sat atop piles of rubble and drank cups of tea and children pretended to shoot one another with crumpled iron bars fallen from buildings (73).

The scene when the soldiers climb an escarpment and gather for an Easter service preceding the singing of I know that my Redeemer liveth by a powerful female voice is a magnificent image.

Lester’s word usage is strikingly apt. I relished her selection of ‘banqueted’ as in “D’Arcy’s eyes banqueted on the view” (87), or a little further on, she envisages a driveway lined with oak trees [that] “peered majestically down at her, some bowing their heads, others raising their arms to the sky as if they too were celebrating” (87).

It is not all good news however. One could understand that there is a place in wartime for the social niceties to not be observed. Conversations between nurses while doing their business in latrines throws an acceptable light on a situation that is anything but acceptable (146) – war never is. It’s a very different situation when, in a relaxed romantic occasion, as two young people are enjoying a kiss, D’Arcy blurts out, “My room or yours” (108)? The remark is so crass that a reader could be forgiven if he/she began to wonder whether the character, D’Arcy, the wholesome girl that has been presented thus far, is a genuine depiction. One immediately begins to question the elegance of the vision of the white butterfly in the scene before this one. Others might argue that Lester has introduced the speech of the twenty-first century into a mid-twentieth century context without being aware of the faux pas, or worse, being aware but caring not.

That raises a wider issue. People living in the 1940s spoke in everyday discourse very differently than their counterparts in the early years of the twenty-first. Words left the language in the time between the two endpoints. As an example that is not specifically relevant to the forties, boys in Australia during the 1950s were called ‘nippers’, they used exclamations like ‘Jeepers creepers’ – expressions no longer heard in the modern world. There is a very important issue here where an author appears to have made no attempt to distinguish between the two conversational idioms. Lester is correct in recognising the modern practice of unthinking derision of men, as in:

“You’re assuming the photographer is female.”

“I know she’s female. Her body of work has a degree of compassion for the subject that I’ve never witnessed in that of a male photographer” (91).

This stereotyping does the author no favours.

In summary, if I were into glib statements, I might say that I enjoyed the story but had reservations about the sincerity of the writer. The flow of the story was tortuous but allowed the reader to get past the twists to remain with the plot. The cover was at a level well above the quality of the book.

The French Photographer

(2019)

By Natasha Lester

Hachette

ISBN: 978-0-7336-4002-5

$29.99; 448pp

 

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