I’d had this book for a while before I read it as I’m participating in a blog tour for this latest release by Natasha Lester, The French Photographer. It means I’ve seen a few reviews around, including a negative one in mainstream media which Lester shared just after the book’s publication.
I was surprised by that as this is possibly my favourite book by Lester; although it might be a toss-up between this and A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald, and I think that is because the subject matter is ‘meatier’ than her two more recent novels. (If that makes sense!)
The French Photographer
by Natasha Lester
Published by Hachette Australia
on March 26th 2019
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Historical Fiction, General Fiction, Women's Fiction
Manhattan, Paris, 1942:
When Jessica May's successful modelling career is abruptly cut short, she is assigned to the war in Europe as a photojournalist for Vogue.
But when she arrives the army men make her life as difficult as possible. Three friendships change that: journalist Martha Gellhorn encourages Jess to bend the rules, paratrooper Dan Hallworth takes her to places to shoot pictures and write stories that matter, and a little girl, Victorine, who has grown up in a field hospital, shows her love. But success comes at a price.
Australian curator D'Arcy Hallworth arrives at a beautiful chateau to manage a famous collection of photographs. What begins as just another job becomes far more disquieting as D'Arcy uncovers the true identity of the mysterious photographer -- and realises that she is connected to D'Arcy's own mother, Victorine.
Lester’s books all offer that common theme of women fighting against an oppressive patriarchy and she does it brilliantly here. Reading this and the challenges Jess and her female colleagues face is almost unbelievable, and definitely offensive to me… reading this, three-quarters of a century later.
This book includes incredible detail of everything from the world of fashion and magazine publishing to newspaper reporting and wartime Europe and I can’t even imagine the amount of research that went into this book. Lester’s Author Note at the end details her inspiration and the characters on whom she’s based this novel as well as the books and documents she’s used to faithfully reflect the time and place of its events.
I very much liked our lead character Jess, who we meet when she’s a model but already doing some writing for Vogue and seen as an up and coming photographer. It’s her dream to become a war correspondent/photographer. In that sense it reminded me a little of a book I loved last year Dear Mrs Bird, though this goes in a very different direction.
We spend a lot more time in the past for the majority of the novel, though get to meet D’Arcy when she travels to France. She’s a ‘art handler’ (arranging logistics to transport art for shows) but passionate about becoming a documentary filmmaker. (Like Lester) she’s particularly interested in the work of women during wartime whose efforts went uncelebrated, and even unacknowledged, later.
D’Arcy’s packing the work of a famously anonymous photographer (the French Photographer in question…) when she notices similarities between the work of the photographer and a little-known wartime photographer, Jessica May. Of course the link is obvious to us and we can see what’s going to come next but the novel’s well-paced so we learn of the events of the past as they’re revealed in the present.
Lester’s character development is again superb. In addition to Jess and D’Arcy we meet a raft of characters who are so well-developed they remained with me long after I’d finished the novel. Indeed, some of the characters are real – such as Martha Gellhorn (war correspondent / journalist, though sadly better known as Mrs Ernest Hemingway) and other female journalists. In her Author’s Note she mentions basing the character of Jess on a number of sources and inspirations of the time.
As Jess doesn’t make it to Europe until 1943 she’s there for D-Day and the conclusion of the war… which petered out more slowly than I expected. I very much enjoyed the insight we were provided into the lives of the men on the front, the nurses and medical staff of the hospital as well as other war correspondents and their public relations’ officers – the intermediaries who coordinate the movements of the journalists. It’s interesting to think of journalists (now) who are ’embedded’ with frontline troops… not to mention the challenges the military and governments have in censoring reporting and the availability of real-time information.
I’m not a reader of historical fiction (or non-fiction full stop) so there was soooo much I didn’t know about the end of the second world war, and it occurs to me I was only aware of the ‘highlights’.
This is a wonderful read and Lester shines a light on so many important issues in an entertaining and addictive way. Again we’re reminded how much luckier we women are than those who came before us and it’s not just the shoddy treatment of female journalists we’re privy to but also those stepping up to fill jobs traditionally done by men. I also liked that Lester doesn’t shy away from the issue of the actions of some soldiers during wartime; and of course there’s the futile nature of war, the battles we fight over issues not our own and terrible legacy that death and violence can have, long after we’ve witnessed it.
I realise I haven’t talked much about D’Arcy and her role in packing up the French photographer’s art to transport for a show in Australia, as it’s hard to do so without giving too much away about how their stories ultimately intersect. And readers shouldn’t assume everyone gets their ‘happily ever after’ cos, well… we all know life isn’t always entire fair.
The French Photographer by Natasha Lester was published by Hachette and is now available.
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.