Title: The French Photographer
Author: Natasha Lester
Published: March 26th 2019
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary/Historical
Rating: 5 stars
Inspired by the incredible true story of Lee Miller, Vogue model turned one of the first female war photojournalists, the new novel by the bestselling author of The Paris Seamstress
Manhattan, Paris, 1942: When Jessica May’s successful modelling career is abruptly cut short, she is assigned to the war in Europe as a photojournalist for Vogue. But when she arrives the army men make her life as difficult as possible. Three friendships change that: journalist Martha Gellhorn encourages Jess to bend the rules, paratrooper Dan Hallworth takes her to places to shoot pictures and write stories that matter, and a little girl, Victorine, who has grown up in a field hospital, shows her love. But success comes at a price.
France, 2005: Australian curator D’Arcy Hallworth arrives at a beautiful chateau to manage a famous collection of photographs. What begins as just another job becomes far more disquieting as D’Arcy uncovers the true identity of the mysterious photographer – and realises that she is connected to D’Arcy’s own mother, Victorine.
Crossing a war-torn Europe from Italy to France, The French Photographer is a story of courage, family and forgiveness, by the bestselling author of The Paris Seamstress and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.
‘A writing star on the rise’, we are just so lucky here in Western Australia to call Natasha Lester one of our very own. She is truly a megastar in the historical fiction world, cementing her place as one of the leading specialists in the field of dual timeline and historical narratives. The French Photographer exudes Natasha Lester’s style, grace, commitment to history and her ability to place the focus on our female trailblazers of yesteryear.
The French Photographer takes the reader far and wide, to some of the world’s most cosmopolitan destinations. From London to Italy, France, New York and our very own Sydney. We follow the inspiring journey of two women who are inexplicably linked by the bonds of war, survival, sacrifice, love and commitment. The story begins in Paris, in the year 1942. We meet Jessica May, a stunning young woman with a modelling contract, that takes a nosedive when her images are splashed across a Kotex advertisement. This turn of events leads Jessica to the offices of Vogue, working as a photojournalist in the war. Life on the front is gruelling, Jessica faces an uphill battle to perform her job in the face of the men who dominate the field. But, the friendship of a fellow journalist, a paratrooper and a young girl changes Jessica’s life forever. Linked to Jessica’s compelling story is that of D’Arcy Hallworth, an art curator from Australia, who is assigned to a job involving a mysterious photograph collection based at a French chateau in 2005. D’Arcy is determined to learn more about the identity of the photographer, but it comes at a price, striking right at the heart of her own family origins. The French Photographer is a story rich in family connections, the bonds of love and the strength of the human spirit.
Natasha Lester has burst back into our reading lives, with her latest and I dare say, her greatest historical fiction showpiece, The French Photographer. A beautifully composed dual timeline narrative, this highly absorbing narrative follows a former model turned photojournalist Jessica May, in the midst of World War II, along with an art curator in the year 2005.
Those who know my reading preferences will be aware that my favourite style of books are dual timeline historical fiction novels. So, I knew I was going to be in a clear win-win situation with The French Photographer. However, what I did not expect was to be so taken aback by the strength of Natasha Lester’s story and her prose, as well as the sheer brevity of this novel, I felt a little winded! The French Photographer is one of those special one of kind books. They don’t come around too often, but when they do, it is best to hold on tight and not let go!
So why am I singing the praises of The French Photographer? The historical footing is second to none. Just one glance through the extended Author’s Note, contained at the back of the book, provides the reader with an excellent insight into the history behind the story. It also gives the reader a great deal of insight into the extensive research process undertaken by Lester and the fascinating real life figures this book was based upon. What I loved about The French Photographer was the connection to famous figure Lee Miller. I also came to look forward to the various well known artists, writers and journalists that populated the novel. There is just no faulting Natasha Lester’s research, in any shape or form.
What I came to appreciate greatly after reading The French Photographer and reflecting on my experience of reading the novel, was the importance placed on the role of a war photojournalist and their vital place in the war. The experiences of war journalists, especially females, are rarely shared, discussed or acknowledged. Lester’s prose gives us an excellent snapshot of the vital work of a war photographer.
‘In every photograph, Jess had held both horror and beauty in her hands – a thing as precious and rare as an asymmetrical butterfly. It was her duty to transmit that to the world, no matter what it did to her stomach. She picked up the Rollei, pressed it to the glass and captured on film exactly what now, child’s play had become.’
Utterly astonishing, breathtaking and sublime writing, here in all its glory.
Dual timeline narratives often depend upon a rich sense of place and atmosphere. This is another area where Natasha Lester shows her prowess. Both the 1942 and 2005 narrative evoked an overwhelming sense of place. With each turn of the phrase I felt like I was stepping on the very ground the characters were walking on, which takes great skill as a writer. In particular, I found the attention to detail in the World War II narrative so impressive. I came away feeling desperately sad about the war yet again, as there was an another set of experiences that I was not previously aware of. Natasha Lester does not shy away from those hard to handle areas of the war, it is a warts and all, not a bandaid style approach. Likewise, the 2005 narrative was absolutely breathtaking. I just adored the sequences set in the French chateau and I relished the experience of uncovering the mystery aspect of the novel.
Romance is Lester’s forte and there is so much passion, missed opportunities, heartache, and angst in the love stakes. This applies to both Lester’s modern day couple and her World War II courtship. I do have to say I kept I kept turning the pages just for Jess and Dan, both as a potential couple and their independent stories. I just adored Jess and Dan’s love story, it was an epic, Gone with the Wind style romance, which is my favourite kind. Jess and Dan battle against true love, duty, honour, promises and self sacrifice. And, in keeping with real life, the pathway to love is never smooth sailing, nor does it promise a happy ever after. Expect to reach for the tissues at least once, twice, or even three times while reading The French Photographer!
The most overwhelming feature that I feel that I must acknowledge before closing off this review is the feminist focus. Lester’s approach to this aspect of the novel is to be applauded. She recognises the efforts and bold sacrifices made by those women from times past. The women like Jessica May, Martha Gellhorn and the like. The women who fought against the system, broke down the barriers of their gender, asserted themselves in a male dominated world and made steady gains for women across the world, in many roles. In some respects, The French Photographer is an essential novel for the modern day reader, it acknowledges the hard yards undertaken by our sisters of the past.
It pains me to have to close off this review, but I fear I could continue singing the praises of Natasha Lester all day and night! I will leave you with a strong parting testament, The French Photographer is a crowd pleaser. This novel should be widely read, enjoyed, discussed and celebrated – for its significant place in the world of progressive historical fiction.
The French Photographer by Natasha Lester is published by Hachette Australia. Out now. $29.99
To learn more about the author of The French Photographer, Natasha Lester, visit here.
*Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The French Photographer is book #43 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge