If you’re looking for a novel that will shake up your perspective on the world, this is one for you. Transporting us to the women’s movement of the 70s, The Woman in the Photograph, by Stephanie Butland is a feminist book about women’s fight for equality and exacting change. We see much of the novel through the lens of budding young photographer Veronica Moon, and the novel is also very much a celebration and exploration of this art form: of its technical requirements, its capabilities as well as its limitations, but most importantly, its heart and power.
At the beginning of the novel we meet Veronica Moon (Vee) who, desperately eager to progress her photography career, goes to photograph the strike action taking place at the Dagenham Ford Factory in 1968. At the picket line, she meets Leonie Barratt, whose imposing presence and sharp wit immediately captures Veronica’s attention (and ours!). Leonie’s mentorship and energy throws Vee right into the middle of the passionate and resolute women’s movement. Over the years, Vee’s photography is both driven by, and helps to drive the movement – and she captures some iconic moments in the struggle for equailty. Cut to present time, and the photography of Veronica Moon is due to be celebrated at an exhibition for the first time, to be curated by Leonie’s niece Erica. Between the steady development of the 70s narrative, and accounts of the past in the present day sections, we begin to piece together the story of what transpired in the years in between.
The story at the heart of this book is framed in a really interesting way, and the structure of this novel was one of my favourite things about it. A handful of different archival materials are interspersed throught the narrative, which gives deeper context and historical significance to the story as it unfolds. The overall structure is centred around key theoretical teachings about photography, from a book authored by Veronica Moon, such as ‘Subject’, ‘Light’ ‘Focus’. Other layers are made up of the introductory text for each of the sections of Veronica’s exhibition, and very memorably, angry, humourous letters from Leonie’s ‘Dear John’ column. I absolutely loved these details, which added different textures and tones, and had a very meta-fictional effect: adding weight to this story, but also reminding me that this although is fiction, it is grounded in fact.
There is a lot jam-packed into this book. We learn a lot about photography, and I came to have as much respect for this art form as Butland clearly does. Everything about photography was so well researched and understood, which made it a hugely successful part of the novel. This book is also clearly in many ways a historical novel – grounded in the activist marches, political moments and developments of the women’s movement in the 70s. I found a great deal of humour in the novel too, in the stubbornness of some of the central characters, and their no-nonsense breaking down of how women and men are stereotyped. There is even an almost detective-like element of mystery in this novel, as the years between ‘then’ and ‘now’ are full of intrigue and slowly revealed to us. While some of these different genre characteristics will appeal to different readers more than other elements of the book, I really feel that there is so much heart in this book and everyone will come away having enjoyed it and learnt something from it.
For me, my long lasting impression of this book will be how it has made me question my own feminism. Specifically, it made me take a step back and think about my own actions and attitudes, and my activism. There are so many different models of feminism in the book, from Leonie’s absolutely unwavering and unapologetic feminist fight, to Erica’s more accommodating and often internal feminism. Intersectionality is also a central theme – Vee’s version of feminism has to also accommodate her roots in working class Essex: there is a cost to activism that not everyone can afford. The book doesn’t reveal the winning formula, but instead examines all these perspectives from different angles. A theme of female mentorship, friendship and guidance runs through the book. Several women act as role models, by showing other women what their feminism is all about, often challenging the other woman’s established views, but also encouraging them to try seeing things through a new lens. I felt that this in turn is also very much the role that the book played for me. I closed the last page invigorated to revisit the question of what feminism means to me. I’d love it if my review of this book inspires even just one other person to read The Woman in the Photograph and ask themselves that same question.
The Woman in the Photograph, by Stephanie Butland is out now, with Zaffre. Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a proof copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review.
Sophie @Sophie_Jo_Books 📚🐾