Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2019

The Age of Light, by Whitney Scharer

I made rather heavy weather of The Age of Light by debut American author Whitney Scharer.  It’s a fictionalised slice of the life of Lee Miller, one of those women more famous for ‘being the wife of’, than for her own achievements which were considerable.  But though the novel does reveal the talent, hard work and determination of a woman who broke into the emerging field of professional photography, the novel focusses a great deal on Lee’s romance with the surrealist photographer Man Ray, IMO at the expense of other aspects of Miller’s life.  At 367 pages, the novel just seemed too long for itself.

However, Scharer writes evocatively of Miller’s artistry as a photographer, so much so that I put the book aside to explore her oeuvre online.  After her experiences as a photographer during the war, Miller married in the UK and had a son, Penrose, who has rescued her work from the attic, as it were, and created a magnificent digital archive of thousands of photos by Miller, mainly from the 1940s.  The photos show the range of Miller’s craft, including striking shots of Parisian life, Paris fashion, her surrealist compositions and her work as a war correspondent at Normandy and Dachau.

It was this work at the liberation of the camps which traumatised Miller, and the novel begins with her declining years at Farley Farm, where she lived postwar with her husband the artist Roland Penrose and became a food writer.  The stage is set with a surreal dinner party where the meal somehow survives her alcoholism but her editor at Vogue is under no illusions.  From there the novel switches to Miller’s 1929 arrival in Paris and her ambition to leave behind a successful modelling career and move to the other side of the lens.  She attracts the attention of Man Ray and agrees to pose for him in hope of learning the craft of photography, as much a matter then of developing the negatives as it was of managing light, exposures and unwieldy equipment.  This aspect of Miller’s career is fascinating, and the decadent artistry of the era is effectively made more striking by the author’s insertion of brief scenes from WW2 that illustrate how traumatic it was for war correspondents present at the liberation of the camps.  My understanding of that horror was enhanced by my recent reading of The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman, by Helen Lewis which vividly reveals how war correspondents were utterly unprepared for what they witnessed but felt compelled to record it.  Scharer captures some of this compulsion in Miller’s despatches to her editor, captioned with the words ‘Believe it’.

But (while I am well aware that there is a market for it) reading about love and its angsts, or sex and its variations does not interest me much.  These overlong segments make The Age of Light more of a romance novel than an historical novel, which is IMO a pity.

The cover art by Stuart Wilson of the Picador Art Department for the Australian edition is gorgeous, and I freely admit that it’s what attracted me to reading the book in the first place.

Other reviews are at the Washington Post, and RunSpotRun … where I learned that this book is one of those million-dollar bidding-war books.  The reviewer Jenn Fields asks interesting questions about whether that knowledge influences reviews or not, but then goes on to declare that The Age of Light is a dazzler of a debut that deserves the buzz. It all depends on what you’re looking for, I suppose…

Author: Whitney Scharer
Title: The Age of Light
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019, 376 pages
ISBN: 9781509889136
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan


Responses

  1. I am so busy with photography this month I’ve had little time to read. This book sounds like it has interesting parts but the parts that bored you would bore me too. I would like to read the book about the WWII camera people you mention. I remember reading the bio of one of Ernest Hemingway’s wives who was a photojournalist in the second war. Romance sides of books bore me. Im getting old, haha.

    Like

    • If you follow that link to the Washington Post review, at the very end the reviewer recommends a 2005 bio of Wilson, which might suit you much better?
      #NoPressure I’m looking forward to seeing your posts about photographing the wooden boat festival:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have received this for review and was very keen to read it. I am a bit sick of the relationships aspect outweighing the personal achievements within these fictional biographies, though. No doubt the relationships impacted on their lives and paths, but as you put it, I prefer my historical fiction less romance and more history. I’ll read it and see what I think! I do like fictional biographies, when balanced right, they are wonderfully insightful and usually see me heading off down a rabbit hole of research on the real life of the person in question.

    Like

    • Yes, I agree. I had a lovely time looking at her photos!
      Somewhere in the book it says that she was actually commissioned to report on which of the Paris fashion houses had survived the war, and that made me stop and think a bit. I’ve got a NF book called Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation – which I haven’t read yet – but in the blurb it mentions that they still tried to retain glamour through it all. I went to see an exhibition in London at the Imperial War Museum called Fashion on the Ration, which was about how women tried to do the same in England (under much more difficult conditions) so I know that it was an important aspect of morale, but still, I’m hoping that book will be more about women’s agency than their efforts to look good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve seen a photo gallery previously of how women in France still maintained their fashion to the best of their ability. It was in a book about French Resistance, and the idea behind them doing so was to send a message to the Nazis that they could not break their spirits no matter how much they tried. Along the lines of you’ll never take the French out of France. I kind of love that.

        Like

        • There’s a story too, about how the women of Britain sent lipstick to the women liberated from the death camps. When you think of all the things they needed, when they literally had nothing, it seems an odd thing to do, but apparently it was much appreciated.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It’s a luxury, not a necessity. And even though you would have needed necessities, I suppose a luxurious item like a lipstick would have seemed so heaven sent. After the dehumanising at the hands of Nazis, to be recognised once again as woman would have been so appreciated, I suppose.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, maybe it would have been more engaging as an historical novel or as a straight biography.

    Like

    • A coffee table book, with reproductions of her photos would be nice:)

      Like

  4. Interesting. My sense is that this is being promoted quite heavily over here in the UK with lots of materials for bookshops etc. Plus the cover is very striking. It’s a pity the book itself doesn’t quite live up to expectations.

    Like

    • Well, yes, if they’ve spend a million dollars on it, they need to sell a lot of books!

      Like

  5. Miller is a fascinating woman, and tbh I would much rather read a really good biography which focuses on her career as well as her love life. I’m increasingly suspicious of these fictionalised lives.

    Like

  6. I generally enjoy fictionalized biographies of artists, and I would have thought that one of the reasons to fictionalize would be to discuss relationships. Interesting too that after 70 years it is still news that women were war correspondents (to me anyway).

    Like

    • Absolutely, and have I not read and reviewed a lot of books about relationships? Indeed I have.
      But there is a balance to be kept, and IMO respecting the achievements of the woman the author is trying to rescue from oblivion is harder to achieve if there’s more attention to love and sex, and less on the achievements. There is not enough about being a war correspondent, and next to nothing about being a food writer, except for the bit at the end when in an alcohol haze Miller manages to serve up a stunning dinner notwithstanding.
      BTW see here: https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/01/04/australian-women-war-reporters-boer-war-to-vietnam-by-jeannine-baker/ and I think Sue at Whispering Gums did a post about them (or one of them) as well.
      And do check out that link in the post to Helen Lewis’s book about her father that gave me prior knowledge about war correspondents and PTSD, which many readers wouldn’t have.

      Like

  7. I find relationships fascinating, but in a book that is a fictional biography of an artist, I would want the relationship narrative to serve the story of the artist’s life as an artist, and not be an end in itself.

    BTW I love the cover too.

    Like

    • Yup, me too!
      (I like the way you said that more elegantly than I did).

      Like

      • Did I? Well, if I did, I’d say it’s always easier to build on what someone else has already said that start from scratch.

        Like

  8. I have now read this!
    Agree with you that it’s a bit too long for the story it was telling. I found it waffled a bit from page 200 through to 300.
    Also, I really came to dislike Miller. I understand why she was the way she was, but even so, she was self-centred and self-destructive and she honestly got boring after a while!

    Like

    • Yes, more tightly edited, it would have been a better book:)

      Liked by 1 person


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: