A photographer questions his craft and himself.
A shroud of war looms over Harding’s (Painter of Silence, 2012, etc.) fourth novel like a impenetrable fog. More lengthy novella than novel, it’s told in a gracefully quiet tone reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence—simple, descriptive, cool on the surface, churning with emotion below. Set in Vietnam and Japan and on a rural farm in England, it takes on big issues in a thoughtful, considered manner. Jonathan, a freelance photographer, arrives by chopper at a small Vietnamese jungle village where a fiery and bloody skirmish has just taken place. He sees a still, seated soldier leaning against a wall, his rifle held up straight in front of him, quickly snaps a picture, then moves on. After taking more photographs, he hurries back for his ride. Seeing the soldier again he walks right up to him: “This picture he knew he must have.” The whole book radiates around this moment. Afterward, he sells this photo. Now iconic, it’s on many magazine covers and newspapers. He travels to Japan to escape notoriety. Here “no one will know him.” He finds a position teaching English and travels the area taking photographs. At the language school he meets the friendly and welcoming, “small and jaunty” Kumiko. They become friends, then lovers. She takes him to visit her grandparents. Her grandfather fought the British in Burma; Jonathan’s father fought the Japanese in East Asia. Walking a Tokyo street one day Jonathan sees another gaijin or foreigner. He knows it’s the soldier he photographed, a “man he didn’t want ever to have met.” Italicized passages commenting on Jonathan’s activities and feelings, along with astute Susan Sontag–like ruminations on photography, viewer and subject, memory and responsibility, precede many chapters, in effect creating another story within the story. With a self-effacing tenderness, Harding brings her understated story to a powerful, emotional end.
A haunting, subtle inquiry into complex and difficult matters.