I have been desperate to read this book since a rather beautiful proof copy dropped through my letterbox a few months back and I’m delighted to finally be sharing my review today. It seems particularly appropriate to have been reading The Photographer of the Lost as Remembrance Sunday approaches.
This book is set in 1921 and focuses on Harry who survived the war and is now working as a photographer. He lost one brother, Will, in the war and another, Francis, has been missing, presumed killed for four years. His sister-in-law Edie has never given up hope that Francis might be found, a conviction strengthened by the mysterious arrival of a photograph of Francis. The photo is sent with no letter, no explanation, the only clue to its provenance being a French postmark on the envelope.
The word that kept going through my mind as I was reading this book was rebuilding. We see communities trying to rebuild buildings, rebuild towns and rebuild lives. This was a mammoth task in the north of France post-war where even now, more than a hundred years later, ammunition, relics and remains still turn up in farmers’ fields. This is not the landscape of tranquil well tended cemeteries which exist today, not the huge memorials such as on Vimy Ridge and at Tyne Cot, not the thousands of individual town war memorials. This is a countryside ravaged by war, a place where there is little evidence of the buildings and landscape which existed before the war.
Harry is seeking out and photographing graves or significant places for bereaved families who may never have been able to visit. I found this aspect of the book really comforting. Like most families, there were losses a generation or two back in my own family. I have visited the grave of my great uncle in France a few times and it struck me as so sad that his own parents were never likely to have been there. I know that they, in common with other families, chose the inscription at the bottom of the gravestone. In my great uncle’s case this read “There is a link death cannot sever, love and remembrance live forever.” I’d like to think that perhaps there were at least able to see a photograph of his grave and that this brought them some comfort.
Through the photography requests we get a glimpse into each family’s loss and devastation. We see broken families, broken hearts, broken minds. It was so emotional thinking about the families who never found out what happened to their loved ones despite the remarkable efforts and dedication of what is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. With no body, no burial place, no real sense of what happened there was often no closure. It must have been horrendous for those trying to hang on to a thread of hope, at least for the first years, that maybe their loved ones were somewhere but had forgotten who they were, could not be identified or could not get home for some reason.
Caroline Scott has brilliantly conveyed that for many families the war was not over when it officially ended. For many families it was a continuing hell whether for soldiers who returned damaged in body or mind, for families grieving losses and for families who never found out what happened or where the bodies lay. The Photographer of the Lost is a meticulously researched book. It is a must for fans of historical fiction, particularly if you are interested in the First World War and its aftermath.
My thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the invitation to take part in the blogtour and to publishers Simon & Schuster UK for sending me a review copy of the book. It is available in hardback, ebook and audiobook formats now. You should be able to buy or order it from your usual book retailer or can order a copy online from Hive (where every purchase supports your local High Street): The Photographer of the Lost
From the back of the book
In the aftermath of war, everyone is searching for answers . . .
An epic novel of forbidden love, loss, and the shattered hearts left behind in the wake of World War I
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.
An incredibly moving account of an often-forgotten moment in history, The Photographer of the Lost tells the story of the thousands of soldiers who were lost amid the chaos and ruins, and the even greater number of men and women desperate to find them again.
About the author
Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on the landscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in southwest France.