Natasha Lester’s new novel, The French Photographer, opens in 1942 with the world in the vice-grip of war. Twenty-two year old New Yorker, Jessica May, is making her living as a model, and a very successful one at that – she’s Vogue’s golden girl, and the darling of the Manhattan society pages.
But Jessica knows there’s more to life than posing in bathing suits and drinking champagne. When her parents were alive, the May family had lived in Paris, and Jessica had often joined the Parisian anti-fascism demonstrations. She’s always wanted to do more than model and when her blossoming career is brought to an abrupt halt thanks to a disgruntled ex-boyfriend and an old photoshoot, Jessica decides it’s time to make a change.
At first, Jessica isn’t sure how to help: she can’t shoot or fly or fight. But she’s a budding writer and a talented photographer, and when Vogue announces they’re on the hunt for a photojournalist to visit and document the battlefields of Europe, Jessica jumps at the chance. It takes some convincing of both her Vogue editor and the stone-faced staff at the State Department, in charge of granting war zone passports, but after a few months, she is finally off to Europe.
Jessica knew the war zone would be tough, but the men fighting at the front go out of their way to make her life difficult. They don’t think she belongs in a battle zone and don’t care if she knows it. Life is hard until Jessica begins to make friends. There’s plucky Martha Gellhorn, a prolific war correspondent, young Victorine, a child of the battlefield, and charismatic paratrooper Dan Hallworth, who helps Jessica find stories that matter. But success comes at a price, and as the war rages on, Jessica learns not all her new friends can be trusted – and that not everyone is as honest as they seem at first.
As The French Photographer fast-forwards to 2005, we meet D’Arcy Hallworth zipping through the chestnut-and-lily-scented French summer air in her rented blue Renault. An art handler with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, D’Arcy is delighted to be back in France again. Her mother was born and raised here, and although D’Arcy has spent most of her life in sunny Sydney, France has always felt like her second home.
That’s why D’Arcy had been so eager to take on this new job; to travel to a sprawling French chateau to curate a collection of famous, anonymously-taken Second World War photographs for an exhibition back home. But what begins as a routine assignment soon becomes much more, and as D’Arcy grows closer to Josh, the agent representing the mysterious photographer, she makes a series of startling discoveries – discoveries that will change her life irrevocably.
This latest novel from storyteller extraordinaire, Natasha Lester, is enchanting and thought-provoking as it charts the story of two remarkable young women navigating life-changing events decades apart. And like Lester’s last work of historical fiction, The Paris Seamstress, The French Photographer is meticulously researched.
Lester has brought war-torn France to life in this book with some vivid writing, and she has used her flawless research to seamlessly blend fact and fiction. The character of Jessica is based on the intriguing Lee Miller, a real-life fashion model who became the only female combat photographer in Europe during the Second World War (look up the extraordinary photograph of her in Hitler’s bathtub, taken during the Allied liberation of Germany). Martha Gellhorn, another real-life war correspondent and one-time wife of Ernest Hemingway, is portrayed compellingly by Lester in this novel, too.
Our two heroines, Jessica and D’Arcy, are both fabulous characters. Feisty, intelligent and fiercely loyal, Jessica is an engaging guide through the battlefields of the Second World War, and her ability to navigate and succeed in a world designed to exclude women is inspiring. Meanwhile, D’Arcy’s journey movingly shows how much a person can grow and blossom when they discover more about their background and origins.
Lester has a beautiful way with words, and the imagery in The French Photographer is evocative and gorgeously poetic. When D’Arcy and Josh enjoy dinner in the chateau garden, their food is accompanied by ‘a bottle of wine as full-bodied as a burlesque dancer;’ in another powerful scene, ‘the words settled on D’Arcy like a fur coat in summer.’ When Jessica overhears two GIs having an infuriating discussion about her, ‘for just a moment she [feels] the tree before her reach out, its curious and beautiful arms pleading with her to step away.’
A story of courage, family, secrets, and love lost and found, The French Photographer is perfect for fans of Hannah Richell’s The Peacock Summer or Kayte Nunn’s The Botanist’s Daughter. Superb historical fiction.
Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive before returning to university to study creative writing. She completed a Master of Creative Arts as well as her first novel, What Is Left Over, After, which won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for Fiction. Her second novel, If I Should Lose You, was published in 2012, followed by A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald in 2016, Her Mother’s Secret in 2017 and the Top 10 Australian bestseller The Paris Seamstress in 2018. The Age described Natasha as ‘a remarkable Australian talent’ and her work has been published in numerous anthologies and journals.
In her spare time Natasha loves to teach writing, is a sought after public speaker and can often be found playing dress-ups with her three children. She lives in Perth. For all the latest news from Natasha, visit www.natashalester.com.au, follow her on Twitter @Natasha_Lester, or Instagram (natashalesterauthor), or join the readers who have become Natasha’s friend on Facebook.