Review: The Photographer’s Wife, by Suzanne Joinson
Bloomsbury, 2016. 334 pp. $26
Eleven-year-old Prudence Ashton has been dragged by her self-absorbed father, Charles, to Jerusalem in 1920, with no thought to her happiness, formal education, safety, amusement, or social isolation. (Prue’s mother is somewhere back in England, perhaps institutionalized; Prue fondly remembers her storytelling, though also her brutalities.) But to Ashton, Prue’s a nuisance, an encumbrance. The only thing that matters is his lunatic scheme to remake the ancient city along British lines, blowing up whatever’s in the way, to create parks, green spaces–desert? What desert?–and orderly neighborhoods. His colonial nightmare might be funny, if people weren’t dying because they oppose the regime that dreamed it up.
Meanwhile, Prue roams the city almost at will, lonely but fascinated. Jerusalem’s sights, sounds, colors, smells, and myriad faces draw her in, and she understands the city better than any of the English trying to bulldoze it. Prue’s only companions are Ihsan, a kindly man who tutors her in Arabic (for which she has a knack), and Eleonora, a beautiful, severely depressed Englishwoman. Like Ihsan, Eleonora’s husband is an Arab nationalist, which pulls Prue into witnessing and unwittingly participating in underground political activity, for which people are being butchered like cattle.
A pilot shows up to work for Ashton, but his real motive is to pry Eleonora away from her “mixed-race” marriage, which to him is “wrong.” Like the other Englishmen in this novel, he’s completely out of touch, expecting Eleonora to agree and takes it hard when she doesn’t. On the other hand, her husband stays away from her for weeks at a time, photographing British brutalities. He wants a child, but she’s too scared to have one; her mother died giving birth to her.
If you’re thinking these people are a dreary, listless bunch, you’re right, and then some. What kept me going were Joinson’s terrific prose and her enviable gift for creating character. For instance, here’s the pilot, recalling his school days:
Willie had experienced a series of vivid fantasies in which a man, for some reason Italian, would magically arrive at helpful moments and offer to be his intermediario. This middle-man, a fixer or wizard, would plant himself between Willie and the rest of the world and sort everything out. He charmed the loathsome housemaster, tricked bullies, coaxed his father back from his ships, and then, when his father’s presence was altogether too much, cast him away again for four years and a day.
But, like Willie, I find nothing to hold onto in the world of this novel, much of which takes place in England in 1937, when Prue has her own child to ignore.
I sometimes believe that we are designed to betray the people we love, just as sometimes we hand everything over, like a bright unclipped purse, or a secret part of our body, to a stranger
I disagree with Prue. I don’t think her life illustrates betrayal. Rather, I see criminal neglect, sadism, manipulation, and craven silence, perpetrated by monsters with whom I can’t identify. As the chief victim, Prue’s a born masochist, which gets very tiresome–Say something, damn it–but of course, she doesn’t. Masochists don’t. But after a while, when all she gets is more and more punishment, to which her silences grow longer and longer, I want to scream. Philandering, abusive husband, jealous of her artistic success as a sculptor? Sure; why not? Government agents pursuing her for reasons they refuse to divulge, in ways that seem flagrantly illegal? Oh, all right.
The Photographer’s Wife claims to be about politics, but I’m not sure what the message is. Part of my confusion comes from the narrative style, which chops the story into irritatingly unfinished bits set in different decades, so that it’s hard to get a coherent picture. Maybe Joinson adopted the mixed-up order to keep a secret, but if so, it’s a gimmick that doesn’t work. The secret seems decidedly weak and anticlimactic, yet the narrative uses it to take an unearned about-face. Even odder is that this turnabout has to do with German persecution of Jews in the late 1930s, when the novel fails to mention its Arab counterpart in 1920. But maybe the real problem politically is with Prue, who’s a total airhead about anything except art. Just as in 1920, she understood nothing of the dangerous currents wracking Palestine, in 1937, she neither knows nor cares what’s happening to the world–except she’s no longer a child, and so has no excuse.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.