Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Italy, 1958: Rachael is a young widow with a small child. After a lifetime of running for survival, of not knowing who to trust and where to call home, she finds herself in a place of safety. On a sun-drenched Italian island for one carefree summer the troubles of her past fade away and she falls in love. But will Rachael’s new-found happiness bring her further heartache?
England, 2017: Sophie has a handsome husband, a gorgeous house in the English countryside and a successful career as an anthropologist. But the one thing she longs for is a baby of her own. As she struggles to conceive, cracks begin to appear in her marriage. So Sophie throws herself into her work and tries to seek comfort in childhood memories of her beloved grandmother Rachael.
One afternoon, Sophie finds a forgotten letter and an exquisite silk bracelet hidden in Rachael’s old writing desk. Intrigued, she begins to unravel the extraordinary story of her grandmother’s past - and a secret that has the power to change everything…
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Photograph to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
I was delighted to see that with her new book The Photograph Debbie Rix has moved away from the stories she had set in much earlier centuries and moved forward to 1950's Italy. I have loved all her previous books but this one proved to be my most favourite of all. All the elements that I adored that were apparent in her earlier books are still here and the dual timeline aspect of the plot has still been retained and this makes for an excellent although at times heartbreaking read. The book opens with a quote from Franz Kafka which I think very much sets the overall tone and was the key message to this story. ' I belong to you, there is really no other way of expressing it, and that is not strong enough'.
Belonging, connecting, expressing and experiencing different forms of love are all strong themes in this book with forbidden love being the most evident. Debbie Rix has woven a wonderful story between the past and the present and this is historical fiction at its very best. The story was inspired by a reference the author came across during research of a material called sea silk. She delved even deeper and soon a story featuring the Jewish Queen Berenice and her lover Emperor Titus began to emerge. This led the author to develop the story which then went on to form the backdrop to feature Sophie in present day London and Rachael in the late 1950's in Budapest and later Italy.
Throughout the story historical fact is mixed with fiction and this makes for an engaging, intriguing read which will hold you in its grip until the very last sentence.
Each chapter alternates between Sophie and Rachael and the reader soon settles into a relaxing rhythm of moving between the past and present. Sophie lives in London and is married to Hamish, an anaesthetist in a hospital. Hamish seemed very standoffish and very non-committal, like he was never fully present in the moment as if something else was always on his mind. He works long hours and although the couple love each other, there are layers of unspoken resentments simmering away. Things left unsaid that need to be out in the open, most notable of all the deep longing Sophie has for a child. Things are just not working out on that front and as feelings and opinions slowly fester away, Sophie wonders will a baby make things better? Is a child worth fighting for? Will a new arrival fill in the ever widening cracks as she feels her marriage is not something to be abandoned?
Sophie works as an anthropologist and is studying for her PHD in Roman burials, this is the link to her own past and also it emerges that Sophie is the granddaughter of Rachael. I liked Sophie as a character, life wasn't easy for her. You could feel the desire she has for a child and her willingness to do anything that could make her dreams a reality but at the same time there was a sense of desperation pervading her storyline but also a feeling of inadequacy. I enjoyed how the story didn't solely focus on Sophie delving into the past, the connections emerged more or less towards the end. They naturally evolved with the photograph of the title being combined with a dream Sophie has being the key components to realigning/resolving the past with the present.
Ever so slightly edging it out for me was Rachael's story, I felt totally transported back in time and when we first meet her she is living in Budapest with her father George and husband Jozsef. Times are difficult in Hungary with people very nervous never knowing who was listening and watching their every move, never trusting what might be said to the authorities. The communist government is in full effect with food shortages and rations common place. But George and Jozsef stand up for what they believe in but this only leads to tragedy and soon Rachael and George find themselves fleeing the regime and are forced to live in a refugee camp in Austria. Debbie Rix wrote so vividly and passionately of the turbulent times experienced by Rachael and her father and it is sad in a way that situations like this still exist today. I did think their struggles would be the main element of the story but as they arrive in England the story took a whole new turn and as Rachael finds herself facing motherhood alone how can they carry on? I loved the scenes set in the boarding house run by Mrs. Roper, she became the mother figure that Rachael had lost and was just the person she needed at the time.
George continues his work lecturing in archaeology in London and as a brilliant chance appears, the family soon find themselves on a small island off the coast of Sardina where George can begin to excavate a newly discovered Roman burial site. I was glad the story moved away from England to a different foreign clime as I thought the scenes set in Hungary were brilliantly written but if the story had continued in England it would have become monotonous. Moving everything to Sardinia allowed the sense of mystery to develop even further and here is where the heartbreaking, romantic angle developed which was so beautifully written. It was a rural, peaceful island with an overhauling sense of calmness. Where one could throw caution to the wind and listen to what your heart was telling you. I could picture myself so clearly on the island with Rachael as she adapts to yet another move but I did admire her loyalty to her father. I could feel the heat as she wandered through the village buying her daily essentials. The house where they are staying with its secluded cove seemed other worldly and as her father works away uncovering the burial site and hopefully some secrets, Rachael too develops some secrets of her own.
Love begins to blossom but for various reasons it cannot come to fruition but the gutsy woman she was she did not let this stop her. An unbreakable bond is formed and the inclusion of the sea silk added even more depth and levels to the story. I had a feeling things would go one way but then fate had other plans in store for Rachael. I did want her to follow her heart but I suppose she had to do what was best for her family given another situation she found herself in. She was brave and held her love so close to her chest. I wanted her to fight that little bit more because the way everything was written it felt so real and genuine. But the author had plenty more testing times in store and I loved how many different angles kept emerging the further we got into the story.
Neither Sophie or Rachael had an easy time of things. Each suffer heartbreak and devastation in different ways but it is how they respond and cope with it that makes for a fascinating and intriguing read. I did feel for Sophie with what she discovers but both women proved to be resilient. I felt towards the end the book really did come full circle even if it was bittersweet. Some aspects found a resolution of sorts even if it mightn't have been what the reader would have wanted. Other strands to the story were left more open ended with the reader given the freedom to ponder their own ending or meaning. Both women go through transformations but in doing so the reader experiences a myriad of emotions. In a way I felt I was on a life journey with Sophie and Rachael which had many peaks and troughs some so exquisitely beautiful others just hard to read and witness but overall The Photograph was an excellent read which will captivate all who pick it up. It's honest, intense and emotional with such elegant writing that transports you back and forth in time. Debbie Rix has really stepped up a gear with this book and long may it continue.