It’s taken me a while to get around to reading Camera but I’m glad that I have now finally done it. This is one of those book which forces you to read between the lines to gain the full flavour of the story – it allows the reader to accept the writer’s assumption of awareness and attention to what she and her characters are saying and thinking. It is a quite remarkable achievement.
The story moves seamlessly between the 1980/90s and the past. Johanna Hall, a Swedish photographer, is tracking down some photographs that she has inherited , along with the rest of his property, from her uncle Jacob Hall, also a photographer (not sure how the dates and relationships all work out here) who was living in London in 1905. While there, he got involved with the Theosophist Society, including activist Annie Besant and the Reverend Charles Leadbetter, and also with W T Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette who arranged for the photographer Herbert Burrows to train Joseph in his craft (it’s not referred to in the book, but in fact a Herbert Burrows – not a photographer – was once, apparently, Annie’s colleague and lover).
Anyway, it seems there is something dodgy going on between Charles Leadbetter and a group of boys who are staying in the theosophists’ house, with Leadbetter claiming that they are being used in experiments to photograph souls, but the evidence suggesting something rather more mundane and sordid. Bodies and disappearances become involved, along with a damaged child, sister to one of the boys, and it is Joseph’s and later Johanna’s investigations into what went on that take the story forward.
Throughout the book there are number of recurring images – dreams, sharp acidic sharp smells, cats – that establish linkages of a sort in the narrative. The story moves around in time and place but in the end does not claim to resolve anything. Towards the end, Johanna muses:
I have had time to think and to accept that it is impossible to find answers to every question. Some facts make no sense in any context. It’s like having sorted two jigsaw puzzles found in the attic all mixed together in the same old box of sweet-smelling cardboard. There will be pieces that just don’t fit, and to expect otherwise would be silly.
Johanna goes on to her next project of recording graves about to be dismantled, and it’s not just the biographical details that interest her, but the choice of stone, the position of the grave and details like symbols of death. Details that in the end are probably pointless and of interest to no-one, but in their recording is an activity, like sorting the jigsaw puzzles, that fills in time.
Despite the lack of any real resolution, or perhaps because of it, I found this is a very satisfying book to read. The mix of real, historical figures and places and the imagined is so well done that it sends you off on research into those people and places. The fascination of photography and what the image is capable of telling you that the eye might not otherwise see, provides the basic driver of the story.
Camera by Eva-Marie Liffner, translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson, Vintage. ISBN: 0 099 45519 6
Other books by Eva-Marie Liffner – Imago, Drömmaren och sorgen