I enjoyed the author’s first book, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. This one is better – brilliant even - but very hard to review. I made a list of things the book might be about:
Politics in Jerusalem before the Second World War
The main character is Prue Miller, née Ashton. She’s a sculptor who has escaped the London art world and a terrible marriage to live with her young son Skip in a tumbledown shack in ‘Bungalow Town’, almost on the beach at Shoreham, Sussex. Confusingly, Prue is *not* The Photographer’s Wife. That’s Eleanora, an Englishwoman who shockingly married a foreigner, the famous photographer Khaled Rasul. When Prue was a child, she spent six months living in Jerusalem, where Eleanora was almost the only person to take any notice of her. The narrative moves between Jerusalem in 1920 and Shoreham in 1937.
Prue had a lonely childhood. Her father was always abroad, her mother ill. When her mother is committed to some sort of institution her father sends for her to join him in Jerusalem. The city is a chaotic mix of ancient buildings, people of all races and creeds; also a hotbed of political intrigue, much of it against the British. Astonishingly, Prue’s father allows her to wander the city alone; at one point in the book I was speed reading, in terror of what might become of her. Her friends are all adults. Isfahn teaches her Arabic but also secret codes. An adept pupil, she obtains information for him about British plans. Eleanora, who has taken up photography herself since her marriage to Rasul, seems genuinely fond of her. Then William ‘Willie’ Harrington arrives on the scene. He’s a former pilot, horribly scarred by a horrific flying accident. He’s in love with Eleanora, can’t accept her marriage and wants to take her away. Prue feels she’s lost her friend. Then something happens which means she’s sent back to England.
The intervening years are only sketched in. Prue attends the Slade and becomes an admired part of the new movement in art. She marries the dreadful, controlling Piers and has a son she doesn’t want. Her behaviour at this time is distinctly odd; for instance, her compulsion to take off all her clothes in public. When she runs away to Shoreham history seems to be repeating itself as she allows Skip to run wild. Then Harrington turns up, now involved with the Secret Service. Prue’s relationship with Isfahn and the events in Jerusalem all those years ago have become issues of interest to the British government. No spoilers, but at the end of the book (by which time war has broken out) you are still wondering what will become of Prue and her son. And caring.
A strangely haunting story about a woman who is unusual, to say the least. I liked it very much. I read it courtesy of NetGalley and it’s out on 5th May.