As some readers may know, I was a big fan of Emma Chapman’s first novel How To Be A Good Wife. It was a taught thriller with wonderful characters and plotting, and though dark in subject matter it was a joy to read.
Chapman’s literary skills are similarly showcased in her new novel The Last Photograph. It is the story of Rook Henderson, a photographer whose life was changed by his time in Vietnam during the war there. The book alternates between Rook’s life in the 1960s, and the present day, and though this kind of time-hopping can sometimes be jarring, Chapman carefully links the section together so that they flow nicely and nothing gets muddled.
There are two time frames, and there are also the two sides of Rook’s life – his work in Vietnam, and his life at home with his wife June. The novel covers his entire relationship with June and the impact that his working away from home has on their marriage. I thought this was sensitively handled and as a whole the portrait of their marriage is both sympathetic and rather stark. Chapman excels at presenting the subtleties of a relationship to the reader through dialogue as well as things left unsaid.
Personally I enjoyed the scenes in Vietnam the most. While I have seen movies and read books that discuss this place at this time, it was refreshing to see it through the eyes of a photographer, and a British one at that. The military aspect is not the focus – instead we look at the ordinary people, both the Vietnamese and the civilians like Rook who are visiting. He quickly bonds with two American journalists, Henry and Tom, and they play pivotal roles in his experience of Vietnam, both personally and professionally. The sections set in Vietnam are vivid and exciting, with Rook slowly realising how serious the situation really is. He captures amazing photographs and you can see why he likes being there, in the middle of the action.
The scenes set back home in England are of a different feel. When they are young Rook and June’s life is full of hope and excitement, but as Rook travels more and more their relationship begins to strain and there is less and less happiness in their lives. To be honest at times this got a little grim. They find it hard to communicate, Rook in particular – he bottles up his feelings and cannot find happiness in the ordinariness of life with June. His refusal to fully engage with that life, instead always yearning for adventure, made him quite a frustrating character. He is obviously unhappy with his lot and feels unfulfilled, but his only solution for this is to run away.
Rook’s passion for photography is his redeeming feature. The passages exploring this are lovely, as Rook finally feels in control, able to capture time in an image. He sees suffering and death in Vietnam but he knows that if he does not take a photograph then there will be no evidence and no one will know what happened. He revels in the details captured on film, in the impact of his work. The importance of photographs in reportage is analysed and celebrated in The Last Photograph, and is almost worth reading for this fact alone.
It isn’t the most cheery of books, but it is beautifully written and full of human understanding. The characters throughout are flawed and imperfect, and this coupled with Chapman’s precise prose makes them come alive. A successful second novel if ever there was one.
Published in July 2016 by Picador (UK).