Reviewed by Emma Crowley
1921. Families are desperately trying to piece together the fragments of their broken lives. While many survivors of the Great War have been reunited with their loved ones, Edie’s husband Francis has not come home. He is considered ‘missing in action’, but when Edie receives a mysterious photograph taken by Francis in the post, hope flares. And so she begins to search.
Harry, Francis’s brother, fought alongside him. He too longs for Francis to be alive, so they can forgive each other for the last things they ever said. Both brothers shared a love of photography and it is that which brings Harry back to the Western Front. Hired by grieving families to photograph gravesites, as he travels through battle-scarred France gathering news for British wives and mothers, Harry also searches for evidence of his brother.
And as Harry and Edie’s paths converge, they get closer to a startling truth.
Many thanks to Simon and Schuster UK via NetGalley for my copy of The Photographer of the Lost to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Photographer of the Lost is certainly an impressive début from Caroline Scott. It's a haunting read, of one families search for answers following the loss of their loved one during World War One. This book forces us to think of the after effects of war not just contemplate what happened during the war years. How do people move on when they have no answers? How can they pick up the pieces if a piece of them will always be missing? Fragments of them scattered across the battlefields many to remain nameless and unaccounted for.
From the opening page, this is a very atmospheric read with a sombre tone which befits the themes. The writing is so lyrical and descriptive that a beautifully crafted story is soon emerging from the pages. The pace may be slow but this is a story that cannot be rushed, stick with it and it will bear fruit. The truth takes time to emerge as the main protagonists make their way through the areas where so many men lost their lives. As they slowly start to merge and get ever closer to each other, things become known that change everything. But they cannot go back they must go forward and attempt to leave the ghosts of the past behind for if they do not they will remain in a limbo never being able to discover the solace, answers and peace they so desperately crave.
In May 1921, three years after the conclusion of World War One, Edie receives a letter from France. Inside is a photograph of Francis, her husband, one of the many unaccounted for - missing presumed dead. This photo throws her, leaving her unable to function. Who sent this letter and why? Was it Francis? Is he somehow alive and has been unable to contact his family? Is there a chance she will see the man she misses so dearly? On the other hand does she want to see the man who was not the man she married when he last returned home on leave? So many questions and many more rush through her head. She knows she needs definitive answers in order to quash the maelstrom that has erupted inside her upon opening the letter.
Edie decides to travel to France to see what she can find out. She is treading a path that so many soldiers walked before her but instead now she is part of a group that are the family members of those lost wandering the areas seeking answers and confirmation. She travels solo but always longing to be with those she loves. There are endless women searching gravesides in the hopes of finding their loved one but whilst that grave remains elusive, and with the photo burning a hole in her pocket, there can always be that little glimmer of hope that Francis is alive. Contrasted with that glimmer of hope there is a tone of uncertainty that makes for many sombre, reflective and contemplative moments throughout the book. The reader is made to stop and think even further as to the hardships, loss, grief and anger that so many families experienced post war.
As we follow Edie on her mission to seek closure and move forward we also meet Harry, brother to Francis and Will. He was the one who survived the war when so many did not and this guilt eats away at him, even more so when he too can't find the answers as to what happened to Francis. As we journey with him all the pent up emotions that cannot come spilling forth during war time come pouring out. All those feelings he had pushed deep down begin to arise and we are given an insight into his war experiences with his brothers.
But Harry has not returned to France in the same way that Edie has. No he has a job and is employed by families who wish to have photographic evidence as to their loved ones last known whereabouts or if possible their grave. He is the photographer of the lost, the title of this book. Such few words that strike up so much imagery in the readers head. When Harry hears news of the photo Edie has received and that she too is somewhere in France it takes him back to the times when he was with his brothers preparing to do battle or even marching from one village to the next never knowing what danger would lurk around every corner. But now France has become a desolate place and one of pain for so many.
Interspersed with Edie in France in 1921, and Harry too as he journeys from place to place ticking off assignments for loved ones on his list, are chapters set during the war. Harry takes the reader back to a time where anxiety and fear existed every minute of every waking hour. How himself and his brothers did their best to stay together but the more war progressed the more they each became deeply affected by what they were witnessing. It affected each of them in different ways and lead to varying consequences for all three. These chapters showed the stark contrast of Harry's war experiences and how he is now left to photograph the graves of the lost. Little did he know as he accepted this task that his own brother would soon become someone on the list.
At times I felt there was an awful lot of detail regarding various people Harry met and interacted with during his time spent fighting. Names of various fellow army officials and comrades kept cropping up and I wondered why was it necessary to go into so much detail as at times I thought it did detract from the story. But over time and as I neared the end of the book it was like the mist lifting from in front of my eyes and things slowly began to make sense. That every little nugget of information surplus to the novel or so I thought at the time did actually make sense. That really Caroline Scott had put such thought into every word, sentence, character and setting and she knew exactly where she was taking her readers. Don't be complacent at any time reading this story as every little aspect of it is vital in building up the overall picture until several startling discoveries are made.
The tone remains sombre and slow throughout but as I neared the final chapters things picked up pace as the various strands of the story started to weave together. Several chapters ended on cliffhangers and the next chapter would take us back to perhaps Edie when all you wanted to read about was Harry. Yes for me this was frustrating but that was simply in part because I was getting so anxious and dying to know the overall outcome. Never did I think the eventual reveal would be what it turned out to be and it showed what a gifted storyteller the author is. I felt I had been lured into a false sense of security or that maybe such a thing would happen but no it was a surprising revelation which really made the whole book come full circle and lots of things finally made sense.
What really struck me throughout the book as Edie and Harry travelled separately but at some stage they had to meet was the silence and stillness as they went from towns and villages to grave sites and more. That France was sleeping following witnessing and absorbing such brutality and horrors and that with all these people arriving to seek answers would it only stir up memories that are been attempted to be quashed before the country can move on? But yet in pockets there are men attempting to maintain the upkeep of grave sites so those won't be forgotten. It is a time of change for everyone and the story makes us question how do those who remain and have no answers attempted to move on when the past is calling them back?
The Photographer of the Lost is an ideal read for a book club as it raises so many questions. In fact it probably raises more than there are answers to. In the end a question is raised whether the subject matter is too distant or is it relevant for the reader in today's society? I think it is more relevant than ever considering all the unrest we are experiencing but it also reminds never ever to forget those that went before us and did so much and sacrificed everything so that events could not be repeated. Sadly they are reoccurring and maybe those men over 100 years ago would be feeling now that all their efforts were in vain. So many books focus on the time during the war so it was refreshing if a stark reminder to see that once war was declared over that it did not end there instead its affects lingered on for so many and the trauma at what happened and what people witnessed changed their lives and the way they thought forever.
Guilt, unfulfilled responsibilities, failure of duties and the way memory plays ticks on us are some of the many themes explored in this fascinating story which will make us remember and hopefully teach us lessons for our own times. The Photographer of the Lost is a stunning read which if this is the calibre of Caroline Scott's writing now I can only imagine what she will bring us in the future. A book definitely not to be missed.