Regular visitors to my blog will most certainly have realised that I’m an unadventurous reader. I stick to my favourite genre of mysteries / thriller / suspense / crime fiction, occasionally tip-toeing into more lofty ‘literary fiction’… but try to stay away from other genres which I suspect I won’t do any justice. Like historical fiction.
And although we’re (only) flashing back to the 1960s here, I suspect I requested Emma Chapman’s The Last Photograph because I was attracted the blurb, liking: that it’s partially set in the ‘now’; and that it’s steeped in the notions of regret and redemption.
The Last Photograph
by Emma Chapman
Published by Picador
on July 28th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
He walks into the living room and June is dead.He centres her, checking the light. Focusing, he clicks the shutter.He'll ask himself later, if he knew. It's easy to say that he had acted without thinking, out of instinct.
Rook Henderson is an award-winning photojournalist, still carrying the hidden scars of war. Now, suddenly, he is also a widower.
Leaving his son Ralph to pick up the pieces, Rook flies to Vietnam for the first time in fifty years, escaping to the landscape of a place he once knew so well.
But when Ralph follows him out there, seeking answers from the father he barely knows, Rook is forced to retrace his past: his childhood in Yorkshire, his life in London in the 1960s and his marriage to the unforgettable June – and to ask himself what price he has paid for a life behind the lens...
This book opens with the death of June, Rook’s wife. And he very literally jumps a plane and leaves. But not before emailing his son to let him know his mother’s dead.
It could seem callous, but it doesn’t. Rook’s obviously in shock and mourning the loss of his wife, but his first thought it is to return to the place of his first heartbreak.
I know little about the Vietnam War other than what I’ve read and seen through popular culture and the likes of The Quiet American and The Year of Living Dangerously (for example). Before I travelled to Cambodia (where I lived for 7mths until a coup d’etat in 1997) I did quite a bit of reading on the impact of the Vietnam War on its neighbour. But as I moved through this book it occurred to me that much of my knowledge is from the viewpoint of journalists; how the war impacted them and their perceptions as outsiders.
The book flashes back and forward in time – mostly from the time Rook gets his big break working for the Sunday Times in Vietnam. It’s 1963 and he and June haven’t had the success they’d hoped for since moving to London. He doesn’t have any idea what he’s in for but jumps at the chance nonetheless.
Rook spends five years in Vietnam and we travel to and fro with him. We meet journalists and friends and see the war through Rook’s eyes. And we travel back to London where it seems June has made a new life for herself and where Rook struggles to fit in.
We know something happens which sees him leave Vietnam for good and Chapman paces this beautifully so we’re kept waiting and wondering. The scenes involving Rook and his journalistic buddies felt very reminiscent of relationships and experiences in similar books and films. It felt real. I know Chapman travelled to Vietnam to write the book so was well-placed to see the country through Rook’s eyes when he returns 40-50 years later. And we can’t help but wonder if the elderly Rook will find the answers or redemption he’s seeking.
Chapman’s able to view the Vietnam War with the knowledge of hindsight and blends that into Rook’s experiences and perception of what’s happening around him.
In addition to war – or, rather its futility – there are several themes in the book… which predominantly centres around Rook and his passion for seeing (and experiencing) life through the lens.
Then there’s the wife who knows she constantly comes second and the son he struggles to relate to. And there’s a lesson about holding onto secrets and not confronting past demons.
I adored this book, which came as a surprise as it’s not my usual fare. I read it in a sitting, desperate to know more about Rook’s life and understand why he ran following the death of his wife and what it was he was seeking.
This is a wonderful novel of passion, loss and redemption and an enchanting read.
The Last Photograph by Emma Chapman was published in Australia by Pan Macmillan.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.