Photographer of the Lost by Caroline Scott

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Photographer of the Lost by Caroline Scott

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A realistic but surprisingly uplifting look at the real aftermath of war. A love story as much as a it is a (post)war story
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: October 2019
Publisher: Simon and Schuster UK
ISBN: 978-1471186394

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May 1921. Edie receives a photograph through the post. There is no letter or note with it. There is nothing written on the back of the photograph. It is a picture of her husband, Francis. Francis has been missing for four years. Technically, he has been "missing, believed killed" but that is not something that a young widow can believe. She hangs on the word 'missing', disbelieving the word killed.

The war had killed hundreds of thousands. It had also sent back many men who were not the men who went away. It was known that there were still unknown numbers unaccounted for, even after accounting for the unknown but definitely dead, who could still be alive, wandering or settled elsewhere for whatever reasons their shattered, or at least altered, psyches might have.

With the centenary of the end of the Great War, it was natural that there would be an outflux of novels focussing on it. Scott has taken a different approach in looking not at the war itself – although that is one of the strands in the story – but mostly in its aftermath. "What about the people who survived?" is the question asked.

Edie survived. She worked through the war as most women did, and didn't come out unscathed, but she survived.

Another survivor was Harry. This is Harry's story as much as it is Edie's. Harry was one of three brothers who went off to war: Harry and Bill and Edie's Francis. Harry came back.

By talent and instinct Harry is an artist, a sketcher, a draughtsman. Now, after the war, he has taken up Francis' field of photography. He is making a living taken pictures for mothers and sisters and widows: photographs of the battlegrounds and the graves. Graves for those who know where they are but will never be able to go and lay their own flowers; last known fighting spots or 'believed fallen' spots for those who will never have the closure a headstone provides. It's a morbid occupation and one that takes Harry back to his own battlegrounds, the places he fought alongside his brothers.

Harry is also, and has always been, in love with Edie.

So, as Scott takes us through Edie's search for a husband the photograph suggests is still alive, and Harry's search for whatever it is he is really looking for, she shepherds us through Flanders and France, across the trenches being reclaimed by farmers and nature, she takes us through the villages that are rebuilding slowly, and those so obliterated that no-one will ever return. She paints a picture of the aftermath. The forgotten side of war, the what happens after the guns fall silent, not immediately after, but for long slow years after. There is modern resonance in this. The failure of our recent wars in various places around the globe has not been in not meeting original objectives, but in our never having had a plan for the "after". You cannot destroy a place and then walk away. Except we do. Time and time again. We talk about battles and war as if they were football matches, where at the end you look at the score, determine the winner and loser and everyone goes home and gets on with life, when the fact is that the life people have to get on with, is never the one they left behind. Ever. And there often isn't a home to go back to.

The Photographer of the Lost isn't a war story; it's a love story. Or perhaps more properly a "loves" story. There are several loves at stake here, and a subtle questioning of what love is and where it strays into duty, and what one should do when that happens.

The tale is told through Edie and Harry. Edie is resolutely in the present of 1921, with only random memories informing us of her backstory. Harry's tale flips between the war years and the after years, giving us not just his story but as much as he knows of Francis' as well. It is clear that he knows more than Edie does of what happened, but even he does not have the whole story.

It is an intriguing story and a surprisingly uplifting one, speaking as it does more than anything else of human resilience. There is all the horror and suffering that we'd need to see given the setting, and more of the grit-&-grimness of shattered places but the greater focus is on the black humour of the fighting men and the getting-on-with-it trying-to-make-it-a-bit-more-rightness of those who survived – whether they went home or not.


If this has got you thinking about what happens after wars are over and you want to read more then we can do no better that to point you to Pat Barker's brilliantly sensitive novels: Regeneration by Pat Barker. For more from Scott, try When I Come Home Again.

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