The Last Photograph
by Emma Chapman
He walks into the living room and June is dead.
He centres her, checking the light. Focusing, he clicks the shutter.
He’ll ask himself later, if he knew. It’s easy to say that he had acted without thinking, out of instinct.
Rook Henderson is an award-winning photojournalist, still carrying the hidden scars of war. Now, suddenly, he is also a widower. Leaving his son Ralph to pick up the pieces, Rook packs his belongings and flies to Vietnam for the first time in fifty years.
As Rook reconnects with the changed landscape of a place he once knew so well, he reflects upon a life defined through his work in wartime Vietnam, and then further back in time through rural life in the 1970s, fashionable London in the 1960s, a post-war working class childhood in a Yorkshire mining town, and a secret grief he’s never been able to forget.
When Ralph follows him to Vietnam, seeking answers from the father he barely knows, Rook is forced to reconsider his marriage to the unforgettable June and the price he has paid for a life behind the lens.
This was certainly different to the books I normally read. Reading about the Vietnam War was definitely confronting and reading about it from the perspective of a photographer was even more insightful. Rook’s experience in Vietnam was different from learning about a soldier’s experience in it. As the reader, you look at Vietnam’s war-stricken environment through the the lenses of his camera. It’s a heart-wrenching and eye-opening read that will leave you pondering for more.
Plot wise, this book isn’t the best. It’s extremely honest, getting right down to the root of what happened in Vietnam, and it’s effect on Rook and his family. It’s one of those books that simply follow a person’s life. Rook, a talented photographer, is sent abroad to Vietnam, away from his young beloved wife, June in Britain. There, he captures the reality of war and conflict whilst also making lifelong friends who are journalists and also fellow photographers. At the same time, we are reading from modern-day Rook and how he deals with the death of his wife. They are two different versions of the same person, one still young and unfazed by the ordeals of war and another who has to come to terms with its impacts on his marriage and family life.
The story follows Rook leaving to Vietnam and then coming to his wife, again and again. We see how June resorts to partying and some questionable friends to deal with her inability to gain an acting job and the absence of her working husband. At the same time, we see Rook begin to no longer recognise the women he chose to love and marry. As the story develops, the two no longer become suited to each other and the arrival of son, Ralph doesn’t really do much to resolve this. They move to the country where Rook doesn’t know how to handle a quiet life at home and June without the friend’s she has surrounded herself with. It’s saddening to read about a marriage slowly break down because of war but in all honesty, Rook went to Vietnam to make a comfortable living for his family and it was June’s selfishness that contributed more to their marital tensions.
At the same time, we read about Rook and son, Ralph in modern day Vietnam spending some quality time together after June’s death. These chapters were always relatively short in compared to the flashback ones. For me, these chapters didn’t contribute much to the book as a whole. The focus was more on the war and Rook and June’s marriage and that was what I was invested in. The other modern day chapter were like intermissions in between the real drama.
In summary: I found June annoying, I sympathised with Rook’s situation and I was pretty impartial to son, Ralph. Additionally, reading about a photographer’s experience in Vietnam during the war was fascinating. I definitely recommend this book to older readers not because of any inappropriateness but purely because the message would better suit a more mature audience.