Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Photographer's Wife by Suzanne Joinson

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 5, 2016

In 1920s Jerusalem, eleven-year-old Prudence watches her architect father launch an ambitious (and crazy) plan to redesign the Holy City by importing English parks to the desert. He employs a British pilot, William Harrington, to take aerial photographs of the city, and soon Prue becomes uncomfortably aware of the attraction flaring between Harrington and Eleanora, the young English wife of a famous Jerusalem photographer. Palestine has been a surprisingly harmonious mix of British colonials, exiled Armenians, and Greek, Arab, and Jewish officials rubbing elbows, but there are simmers of trouble ahead. When Harrington learns that Eleanora's husband is part of an underground group intent on removing the British, a dangerous game begins. Years later, in 1937, Prue is an artist living a reclusive life by the sea when Harrington pays her a surprise visit. What he reveals unravels her world, and she must follow the threads that lead her back to secrets long-ago buried in Jerusalem. The Photographer's Wife is a powerful story of betrayal: between father and daughter, between husband and wife, and between nations and people, set in the complex period between the two world wars.

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I always hate admitting it, but I owe my interest in Suzanne Joinson’s The Photographer’s Wife to the cover artist who designed the jacket. I’d never read the author, I’d never even heard of her, but the vintage outfit stopped me dead in my tracks and I couldn’t resist reading the description at which point any and all restraint flew straight out the window. I requested a review copy from Bloomsbury USA, they approved my request and here I am.  

I know very little about 1920s Jerusalem and I’d hoped Joinson’s fiction would offer insight to city’s atmosphere and political landscape. Unfortunately, her descriptions never jumped from the page and I was never able to picture the world Joinson’s characters inhabited. On the upside though, I found the political dialogues fascinating and felt they went a long way in illustrating culture clash between Palestine and Britain.

Structurally, the book reminded me of Atonement. There is no ‘hit you like a ton of bricks’ moment at the end of the narrative, but much of what Prue witnesses as a child is only understood years later when she reflects on her experiences as an adult. I appreciate the idea, but Joinson’s execution didn’t work for me. I found the pacing tedious and I had little to no interest in the 1937 story line.

Joinson’s characterizations didn’t work for me either. I wasn’t intrigued by Prue, Eleanora, Charles, or Khaled. William had some interesting moments and I found his emotional struggle thought-provoking, but generally speaking, I couldn’t rouse much enthusiasm for the cast or the situations they faced. 

When all is said and done I would have a hard time recommending The Photographer’s Wife to other readers. I wanted to like it, but the descriptions and themes just didn’t appeal to my particular tastes. 

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I have never been able to determine the shifting sands of trust. I sometimes believe that we are designed to betray the people we love, just as sometimes we hand everything over, like a bright unclipped purse, or a secret part of our body, to a stranger.
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