shortlisted for Book of the Month
" I have never read anything that conjures the memories of the First World War like this novel does. "
"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 beings 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."
Harry and Edie are both seeking the same person - Francis, Harry's brother and Edie's husband, reported missing in action in Flanders in 1917. Edie has received a photo of him in the post with no note attached, just a photo, and she sets off to northern France and Flanders in search of him. Harry, meanwhile, has taken on the task of photographing graves and other significant sites for the relatives of those lost in the Great War. With Harry feeling every location and knowing exactly what happened here, it is maybe not the best occupation for him, but he feels he owes it to those who didn't return to serve their families in some small way when he did survive. However, it becomes more personal as he meets those also in search of someone: Rachel who is looking for her husband, Gabriel who is looking for himself and a reason to return home.
It so often happens that I read a novel and find a news story that is very close to the subject matter - and so it was with this novel. Dig Hill 80 located the remains of 110 individuals in Flanders and began a debate over whether the remains should be left there or exhumed and re-buried in an appropriate graveyard nearby. Some say they should be left, but this novel will completely persuade you that they and their families did not want them left and lost but marked and remembered, even those who are known only unto God. Too many people in the novel are preoccupied, obsessed even, with finding the lost and remembering all who fell.
A long novel but filled with twists and turns, it is an adventure story, a lament, a reason to never forget the Great War, a love story, a tragedy, on several levels, and a gentle ghost story. I have never read anything that conjures the memories of the First World War like this novel does. Among all the other themes, it is certainly a triumph and compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in this era, or with an interest in humanity.