Monday, January 11, 2016

Distant Photographs: The Photographer's Wife by Suzanne Joinson

The Photographer’s Wife is an interesting story of characters living in tumultuous times in Jerusalem between the two World Wars. The story begins in 1920 in Jerusalem as an architect Charles Ashton develops odd plans to partly redesign the Holy City by creating English style parks. A naïve but keen observer of the interaction of the characters is Ashton’s daughter, 11 year old Prudence, who takes her own photographs and writes her impressions (in codes) of events. She observes the relationship of Lieutenant William Harrington, a pilot hired by her father to take aerial photos of Jerusalem and Eleanora Rasul wife of an eminent photographer Khaled Rasul. Complicated personal relationships develop mirroring the volatile social/political situation in the Holy City.

Jerusalem is similar to Alexandria at the time, with a rich fusion of British, Eastern, and European characters all striving to meet their personal needs and to influence the future of the region according to their own political motivations. Similar to the situation in Alexandria depicted in the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, Joinson describes growing resentment of Colonial British activities by competing factions in Jerusalem.

Jumping from 1920 to 1937, “Prue” is an artist and single mother living quitely in Shoreham by the Sea, Sussex. She and her son have escaped the pressures of the London art world in the aftermath of the Surrealist impact on exhibitions, and Prue is recovering from a tumultuous marriage breakup. Lieutenant Harrington comes back into Prue’s life causing her to review her early life in Jerusalem considering secrets important in her personal life and the political history of the Middle East region between Wars.

Joinson’s style of writing in The Photographer’s Wife keeps the reader at a distance from the characters. Readers may find it difficult to identify with the characters living in Jerusalem or even care much about them in the beginning. British colonials, exiled Armenians, and Greek, Arab, and Jewish officials all vie for personal gain and political power. This is also true of Durrell’s four volume work in which readers are held at bay relying on the narration of characters living in Alexandria who are caught up in contemporary circumstances and unconscious life choices in a city with a long and complicated history. A large part of the international crisis in the Middle East today may be due to the impossibility of understanding all of the chaotic personal and political interactions that make up the history of the region. Up until now, there has been a failure of Western/European world leaders to see the negative consequences of being kept at a distance from the inherent intrigue of the area.

Of course, Joinson does not attempt to match the scope, insightful character development, and intense style of Lawrence Durrell. But, the novel will be interesting and engaging for many readers.

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