Having read and loved The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar two years ago, I was thrilled not only to discover that Suzanne Joinson has now published her second novel but also to be sent a review copy. Like TLCGK this is a novel with dual narratives, but their use in this novel is much more complex. We see the past informing the future, the future developing in the past, and the book loops round on itself so that its beginnings become clearer once we’ve reached the end and uncovered many of the secrets.
In 1920 Prue Ashton’s mother is committed to some sort of nursing home or asylum and Prue, aged only eleven, is sent out to Jerusalem to stay with her architect father. Prue, enthusiastic photographer and talented spy, is befriended by Eleanora, a British photographer who has married the eminent Arab photographer Khaled Rasul and thus slightly scandalised expatriate society. Vying for Eleanora’s attention is William Harrington, the damaged WWI pilot who has been engaged by Prue’s father to help produce some aerial photographs of Jerusalem, which he is busily and insensitively redeveloping under the British occupation of Palestine. He and the other Europeans turn a blind eye to the policing of the region, but the brutal regime ‘Lofty’ McLaughlin imposes on the Arab population with his gendarmerie cannot be ignored indefinitely, even by those, like Charles Ashton, who profit from it.
(Anthony R. Cooke, Shoreham Beach No. 13 , 1967, oil on board; Kirklees Museums and Galleries; found here)
This story is interlaced with that of Prue seventeen years later, now living in a rotting railway carriage on the beach at Shoreham, in Sussex, with her six-year-old son Skip. Prue has abandoned photography and is now a sculptor of some renown, but her marriage has been disastrous; now she lives in squalor on the edge of England with a trunk full of old silk evening gowns and works hard on her sculpture, ignoring Skip but loving him fiercely. And then William Harrington arrives at the door of her studio pretending to be a journalist and searching for a packet of photographs he believes are in Prue’s possession. Gradually, we learn how and why Prue is living like this, and about the betrayals which have marked her life and so many others’.
An elderly Spanish man tells the child Prue: ‘Telling is a gift and a gift leads to betrayal.’ Prue notes to herself, ‘One should never tell anyone anything, or give information, or pass on stories’, while her friend Ihsan warns her, ‘A word is treachery, sweet English child. Every word, a written character, a letter. Be careful what you write. Before the end of the war I used the shifra code to write about Cemal and my father. I did not write of the mother.’ Joinson’s central concern in this novel is the inevitability of betrayal, of those you love, of those you hate, of those to whom personally you are indifferent. Even to speak or write about or photograph another person constitutes a sort of small betrayal, so Ihsan remains mute about his mother. People betray their country, they betray their marriages and they betray their children; by permitting Lofty’s atrocities the rest of the British are betraying the responsibility they have taken from the Arabs for properly governing and protecting them.
(General Allenby enters the captured city of Jerusalem through the Gate of David, 9 December 1917; photograph found here)
In this web of treachery, photographs provide an interesting complication. Eleanora shows William a photograph of her sitting on a chair in which she looks so young it is as if she is a child again. He is amazed. She explains:
Injuria: a wrong. The wrongs of time. The wrong time. The longer the shutter stays open, the flesh fades, the edges are blurred, transparent, and they disappear, can you see? The camera captures not the girl but the amount of time it looked at her. It captures time.
Context is all, when it comes to photographs. Eleanora and Khaled make most of their money from staging elaborate Biblical tableaux, such as Moses Discovered in the Bulrushes. Everyone accepts that these are artworks, staged, not ‘truthful’. Portraits and documentary pictures of British atrocities are ‘truthful’ – and yet they too can be manipulated. The adult Eleanora is made to look like a child through clever use of exposure. A British man pointing a gun at a weeping Arab woman may appear to be a murderous oppressor, yet the story behind that image complicates it. Nevertheless, it is the image that is powerful and dangerous, and the image which must be suppressed.
(Khalil Raad, View of Askar village near Nablus, c.1920; Raad may have provided some inspiration for Khaled Rasul; found here)
Aerial photographs are very useful for mapping, and Charles Ashton is keen to have some to help him with his plans for Jerusalem. They flatten out the terrain and change the landscape into something more remote and abstract, like maps. While the larger ‘picture’ of the geography is revealed, details, mess – ownership – disappear. Ashton’s approach to Jerusalem is like this: he wants to smooth away the ‘insanitary tangle’ of back streets and demolish the ‘Franco-Arab’ clock tower on the Jaffa Gate which is ‘not conducive’ to its ‘400-year-old form’ without bothering about how Jerusalem’s citizens might feel about any of this nor what this architecture means to them.
However, flying above the world can be liberating too; that detachment gives a bird’s eye view, and birds, as in TLCGTK, are significant in this novel, allied with a fragile and joyous freedom. Prue’s first encounter with William Harrington is when he releases a canary from a cage: he had planned to give it to Eleanora but then decides it would be an unsuitable gift (since earlier he had given her a stuffed bird sans cage). In contrast, walls and houses exert their own kind of control by constraining the inhabitants. Both Eleanora and Prue find them stifling.
Joinson uses a sort of layering of motifs and characters and ideas to create a slightly odd tone which is intriguing and disconcerting. Lost mothers, unfaithful husbands, child abusers, wars, spirals, stairs and ladders, birds, hotels: they recur but in different guises, as if seen from different angles or in a dream. This patterning technique was also used to good effect in TLCGTK. The novel is full of memories: of William and Eleanora’s childhood at Penrohobyn, a house which is recalled in increasing states of disrepair, of Prue’s precarious life with her mother, of her days as part of London’s Modernist and Surrealist art world, of the First World War. Joinson picks away at those bits of history we prefer to forget, such as the behaviour of the British in Palestine, or the sympathy that many British in the 1930s had for Hitler, just slightly defamiliarising history. It’s all a little out of focus – even the title seems not quite right, because Eleanora, the photographer’s wife, doesn’t seem to be the centre of the novel. Of course, by the end of the novel we understand its beginning much better, but the dreaminess remains. This is not a criticism: it’s an interesting and rather subtle book which will repay rereading and which I enjoyed very much. Now I must just wait and drum my fingers for Joinson's third novel...