SImon & Schuster | 2019 (31 October) | 504p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1921 when Edie receives a photograph in the post. It takes a moment or two for her to take in what she sees. She then realises she’s looking at the face of her husband, who was lost in action four years before, one of so many to have been claimed by the Great War. Edie doesn’t understand why she’s received the photo but it inevitably opens wounds that have barely begun to heal over. It also lights a hope. Could Francis be alive after all? If he is, why didn’t he come home? It stirs up terrible memories for Francis’s brother Harry as well. Harry and Francis fought alongside each other on the front line, beside their other brother, the youngest of the three, Will. Harry now spends his days in northern France and Belgium taking photographs of graves, battle sites, bombed buildings to send back to mourning relatives at home. But now he’s on the hunt for his brother, a soldier who has no known grave. He learns that Edie is also in France searching for the truth, but he doesn’t know where she is. He must search for her as well. She, too, seems lost.
The Photographer of the Lost is a beautifully-written, exquisitely sad tale that moves between 1916/1917 and the frontline experiences of Francis, Harry and Will, and 1921, when both Harry and Edie are in France, separately searching for Francis, seeking closure. Both want to move on but neither can. Harry can’t even escape from France. His memories and his sadness keep him there, plus the need to help widows and mothers who may never be able to visit the graves of their loved ones in foreign soil.
Harry and Edie guide us through this haunting novel but it’s the people they meet on their quests that make The Photographer of the Lost so special. Many of them have both physical and mental scars from the war and each is trying to remember (or forget) in their own way. One man, for example, has made it his life’s work to re-inter soldiers in neat, respectful cemeteries where they can be visited, another is a stone mason who wants to rebuild France with his own hands. And there are several others who have their own stories to tell, their own wounds to bear. But the one thing they are all able to do is to listen. Both Harry and Edie receive comfort as they meet other people all affected by the war.
The Photographer of the Lost is a desperately moving novel that links the war itself with the years of suffering that followed it. It explores the burden of memory for soldiers such as Harry who survived. It is beautifully set in the almost-destroyed towns of northern France and Belgium, such as Arras and Ypres as well as the towns and villages of the Somme. The scars of the land reflect those of the people who died there and those who are effectively the walking wounded, unable to keep away. At times I felt the novel was almost too sad to bear and, strangely, this distanced me a little from Edie and Harry, but the beauty of this novel and the elegance of its writing cannot be denied.