The French photographer by Natasha Lester
Hachette, 2019. ISBN: 9780733640025.
(Age: 16+) Recommended. Historical fiction. In 1942, Jessica May, a beautiful and much sought after model for Vogue magazine, has her career cut short when her ex-boyfriend sells her image for a Kotex advertisement. She finds herself blacklisted because nobody wants a model linked to the taboo subject of menstruation. But the flipside is that for the first time she considers what she would really like to do - and that is to become a photojournalist reporting on the war front.
And so it passes that Jess finds herself, along with Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's wife, venturing as a female reporter into the war zone. The story of The French photographer is a romance, Jess falling in love with the dashing American officer, Dan Hallworth, but it is also the story of the struggle of women war correspondents to be recognised and respected alongside their male counterparts. Jess goes from reporting on the nurses' stations at the front, to documenting the Nazi concentration camps, to war crimes committed by both sides. She is an intrepid photographer and reporter who won't be held back by the conservative and chauvinistic officers she has to report to.
However, interwoven with the story of Dan and Jess, is the story of a young French child, Victorine, handed by her parents to an American soldier to save from the advancing German army. Dan becomes the only father Victorine knows, and Jess also becomes a trusted friend.
Time shifts to 2004, and D'Arcy Hallworth, a young Australian art handler, has the task of preparing an exhibition of the work of an anonymous photographer, a job that sees her trying to untwist the threads of her own family history, and follow her dream as a documentary filmmaker. But first she has to uncover many secrets and learn who to trust.
The two stories interweave in a way that keeps the reader engaged, and the novel provides a blend of historical fact and fiction that is both realistic and satisfying. Much of Jessica's story is based on the experience of war photographer Lee Miller, renown for her images of women in wartime, and most memorable for her iconic photo taken in Hitler's bathtub, 1945. Lester includes an account of that photograph in her story.
Readers of this novel will gain an appreciation of how difficult it was for women to gain credibility in the workforce, and that whilst the war opened up new opportunities for women, the doors were quick to close again once the men had returned. Reading The French photographer would provide students with an interesting entry point to researching the history of women's roles during World War II.