I’ve been a huge fan of Caroline Scott’s last two novels and share an interest with her in the historical period following WW1. This novel touches upon some of the most important issues of the period, while telling a story that touches the heart strings and holds some surprises for the reader. It shows just how chaotic relationships can become during and post wartime, as well as how much people change when faced with terrible and traumatic experiences. We follow one young war widow called Esme whose whole life changed after she received news that her husband Alec had been killed. No longer able to afford to live in their marital home and needing to find work, Esme finds herself in the employment of Mrs Pickering as companion and helper, while also writing nature columns for her local newspaper. As the summer of 1923 approaches Esme is packing her employer’s clothes for a trip down to Cornwall. Mrs Pickering’s brother Gilbert, has established an artist’s residence in his large country house, and the artists have all served together in the war. As Esme meets Gilbert, Rory and the others she hopes to get an insight into what Alec might have experienced and maybe feel closer to him. What she finds there is certainly transformative, but in a very different way.
Esme is a very likeable character. She’s intelligent, resourceful and has really struggled to pick herself up again from nothing. She’s had no support system to help in her grief or her financial difficulties, in fact this is something she and Alec had in common, they were each other’s family. The author tells us this story in three separate narratives and each gives us a new perspective on the characters. Alongside the main narrative in which we follow Esme to Cornwall, we read the nature column she writes and it’s sublime in its descriptions of this place she’s visiting for the first time. We can see what a talented writer Esme is and how much nature means to her. I kept thinking how lovely these passages will sound on audiobook, almost like poetry. The observations she makes made me feel Cornwall again and in quite an emotional way considering I first visited there almost fifteen years ago when I was newly widowed. I felt like Esme’s Cornwall and mine were the same. I remember consciously walking round thinking that this was the first new memory I was making without my husband and Cornwall’s beauty seemed to make that even more poignant. The third narrative is a book written by Rory, one of Gilbert’s residents and close friend, in which he describes his experience of fighting in France. I was interested in the way he also describes nature as a blighted landscape, ruined by the ravages of warfare. There are vivid descriptions that will stay with me, such as the corruption of the very soil from constantly being churned up, contaminated by mustard gas and almost viscous in it’s consistency. Rory ponders whether this land would recover and how long it would take nature to return. It shows us the utter destruction caused and creates a link between the land the war was fought on and the men who fought it; how long might it take them to recover from the terrible things they have seen and done?
The author depicts PTSD in all of the men who live together in Cornwall, they are each affected by their experiences, but show that in different ways. There’s a vulnerability to them and a need to be with others who have shared their experiences. How else can they be understood and allowed to heal without the pressures of having to find work and cope with the demands of returning to a family? They are each very lucky to have Gilbert and this idyllic setting to slowly recover in. Although each must have another life, one that they belonged to pre-war, potentially leaving behind people who needed or might have asked something of them. It places them in a slightly privileged position over those who had returned straight into full-time work or job seeking by necessity, either because they belong to a different class or have a family to support. The excerpts of Rory’s book are also beautifully written, but don’t hold back from the horrors these men have seen. His descriptions are both vivid and visceral, and through reading his book Esme gains more understanding of these men than perhaps a lot of women would have at the time. How many times do we hear of war veterans who have kept all of this bottled-up inside with family member’s noting they didn’t like to talk about it much? At least here the men have a therapeutic outlet, whether by painting or writing, through which to understand or process these memories, but also communicate them to others without having to say them outright.
All of this would have been enough for a great novel, but the author also places a huge surprise part way through that I hadn’t expected. Through this we see the strength and restraint of Esme, the way she thinks things through before acting and never puts her own needs first. She needs a therapeutic outlet too, showing how the initial effect of war on the person who served ripples outwards to effect their loved ones and even future generations. Just as the land needs time to recover from the physical effects of warfare, there is a shockwave created that blasts through society as a whole. We are shown: how rigid Edwardian class structures are broken down; how marriage as an institution and way of constructing society is outdated and broken; how gender roles become more fluid allowing women more freedom and choice. I really did enjoy seeing how Esme negotiates this new world and makes bold choices for her life moving forwards. This book is another triumph for the author, because it’s a beautiful piece of historical fiction that tries to capture a moment in time where everything’s in flux. These constantly shifting sands of time show us the formation of our 20th Century and the resilience of the human spirit. It gave this reader hope that, just as nature found a way and those battlefields are now meadows and farmland, humans do have the capacity to heal and be reborn.
Meet The Author.
Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on thelandscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in southwest France. The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick.