Book Review – The Woman In The Photograph by Stephanie Butland

Pages: 352
Published: 11th July 2019
Genre: General Fiction
Trigger warnings: Sexism/misogyny, sexual references, cancer storyline

1968. Veronica Moon, a teenage ingénue from an estate in Essex is teaching herself the art of photography. Her passion and skill build, though of course it can only ever be a hobby. And then she visits the picket line at Dagenham Ford Factory.

At the front line of the fight for equal pay for women workers she meets Leonie – a privileged, angry activist, ahead of her time and prepared to fight for equality with everything she has. Veronica is captivated.

She breaks off her engagement and moves to London with Leonie to begin a game-changing career and an intoxicating friendship.

Fifty years later and Leonie is gone. Veronica is a recluse with a crippling degenerative disease. For a while she was heralded as a pioneer, leading the charge for women everywhere. But her career was shockingly and abruptly ended by one of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century. It is a photograph she took of her best friend’s death.

Now, as that controversial picture hangs as the centrepiece of a new feminist exhibition curated by Leonie’s niece, long-repressed memories of Veronica’s extraordinary life and tumultuous, passionate and – at times toxic – friendship begin to stir. It’s time to break her silence and step back into the light. And she will no longer hide from the truth about that dark time .

For a novel in which the subject of photography plays such a prominent role, it is fitting that it chiefly represents a detailed and nuanced character portrait. Quietly powerful and unapologetically feminist in just about every respect, it takes inspiration from events in recent history to create a story that is thought-provoking and at times, surprisingly moving.

Running throughout the narrative is a barely concealed social commentary with a string of popular culture references, all alluding to the battle for women’s rights over the past half a century. Each section is intelligently structured with dual timelines giving it that crucial added dimension, providing the backdrop for the characters to stand out with their impressive individuality and strength.

Veronica Moon is a renowned photographer who specialised in taking images of demonstrations and protest marches in favour of equality for women, in a career that began was launched at the Ford sewing machinists strike in 1968 and took in several other high-profile events before coming to an abrupt end in 1984 after the death of her long-term friend Leonie Barratt, a prominent feminist and columnist.

After meeting Leonie in 1968 and becoming empowered by her uncompromising views, Veronica calls off her engagement and moves in with Leonie, forming part of the ‘Sisterhood’. They live together for several years until arguments over Veronica’s increasing success lead to her moving out, although they remain in close contact.

In 2018, after many years out of the public eye, Veronica’s work is now the subject of an exhibition organised by Leonie’s niece Erica. By now she is reclusive and in declining health, but she is very intrigued by Erica and her lack of involvement in the feminist movement. When she unearths more of her historical photographs of Leonie, the past soon catches up with Veronica once again.

It is not the kind of book that contains multiple twists and turns or any great revelations; instead thriving on the topics it portrays and the quality of the storytelling. The relationships Veronica has with Leonie in the past and Erica in the present are so interesting, and the events which take place throughout both timelines contain a symbolic link to feminism.

A multimedia format is used as every section begins with the description of one of the photographs featured in the exhibition, before going back in the third person to the year it was taken. It then switches back to the present where it focuses on the perspectives of Erica and the older Veronica, while certain parts also include some of Leonie’s outspoken magazine columns.

This structure meant that the story flowed nicely and never became too monotonous, especially as in the earlier timeline the passage of time allowed for a handy amount of character development. It was very noticeable to see how Veronica became enthralled upon meeting Leonie, and from there she progresses into quite a forceful, headstrong personality who knows her own mind. The same applies in the present, even as her health worsens.

Leonie is an absolute force to be reckoned with. She is a woman who flat out refuses to adhere to any societal norms of the time and in doing so ruffles a lot of feathers, even more so given that she is in an era where expectations of women were so rigid and they were treated as second class citizens. At times she could be too stubborn and disagreeable, but you have got to admire many of the things she stands for.

In contrast to the others, Erica was relatively unremarkable and I did not connect with her quite as much, although again it was clear to see how spending time with Veronica changed her outlook on things. The relationship Veronica had with her father was poignant and bittersweet, and the author also did a good job of exploring the contrast between Leonie and her sister Ursula, who did not share the same ideologies.

The writing is thoughtful and quite witty, as every meaningful sentence or line of dialogue has its words carefully chosen. Indeed, the feminist themes are so embedded in the plot that the author clearly owns them and puts a lot of herself into it. The historical events are woven in well and the ending is fitting, even if the gap between the two timelines could have been closed a little a better.

Overall, this is a sharply written book that entertains with its superbly drawn characters and a unique format that keeps things ticking along at a reasonable pace. You will not find much tension or high-octane drama, but it has a very clear purpose and that is executed with real success, using feminism and the art of photography as its centrepiece.

In her author’s note, Stephanie Butland says she is very proud of The Woman In The Photograph, and I can understand why. Having survived breast cancer and written about her experience, she became a novelist and her first such release came in 2013 with The Secrets We Keep.

Since then, she has published another four novels, the most acclaimed of which was The Other Half Of My Heart in 2015.

Having finally picked this up of two years of making up a part of my unread pile, this one was a rather pleasant surprise. I enjoyed the writing, and was enthralled by the characters of Veronica and Leonie.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

2 thoughts on “Book Review – The Woman In The Photograph by Stephanie Butland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s