The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (Picador 2019)
n 2017 we featured photographs by Lee Miller and a play about her turbulent and troubled life, The Angel and The Fiend, written and performed by her son and grandaughter, Antony Penrose and Amy Bouhaissane. Last year Antony and Amy returned with A Portrait of Space, a play about the life of Roland Penrose.
Our book review this month is by Morag Charlwood, and features a fictionalised interpretation of some of the events of Lee Miller’s remarkable life.
The Age of Light
This is Whitney Scharer's debut novel. The author holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MFA from the University of Washington. She lives outside Boston with her husband and daughter.
Prologue, Farley Farm, 1966
Lee Miller, gourmet chef and domestic correspondent for Vogue Magazine, prepares a feast for her guests. Her mind wanders to her artist husband, Roland Penrose, and his love of walking on the Sussex Downs, back through her wartime partnership in reportage for Vogue Magazine with David Scherman, and her previous roles as fashion correspondent, and, originally, fashion model; all for Vogue.
The scene setting of this prologue essentially establishes the architecture of this novel. The narrative emphasis is placed on Lee’s Paris years with artist and photographer, Man Ray; portrayed as years of gradually developing self-assuredness for Lee Miller, realised against the Bohemian backdrop of passion, love and lust during the inter-war milieu of Parisian sensuality, creativity and artistry.
Lee Miller arrives in Paris in 1929, starts out as Man Ray’s model, gradually convincing him, against his desire, to make her his assistant in his photographic work. The journey taken by Lee Miller to be recognised for her creative talent creates the arc of the story. Man Ray is portrayed as egotistical and charismatic; Lee Miller as being caught up by her lust for freedom, and a conviction in her own talent that has to battle both contemporary sexism and the demons from her own past.
Intercut with these revelations of Lee’s self-discovery in art and life, Whitney Scharer threads snapshots of Lee’s memories of war-torn European battlefields, her hatred of Hitler and, as one of the first female war correspondents, her documenting of the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps.
As a reader, I would have appreciated greater weight being given to the inter-twining memoir- narratives, but, ultimately, the bulk of the novel explores Lee Miller’s tempestuous four-year relationship with Man Ray. The inter-cutting pieces of memory give brief insights as to Miller’s quite remarkable and influential artistic future, but this novel is essentially the tale of a tempestuous romance, focussing on the seminal impact of Lee Miller’s self-growth in inter-war Bohemian Paris.
Reviewer: Morag Charlwood
‘Whitney Scharer’s storytelling is utterly immersive and gorgeous in its details . . . powerful, sensual and gripping.’ Madeleine Miller, author of Circe
- Imprint: Picador
- Published: 07/02/2019
- ISBN: 9781509889129
- Length: 320 Pages
- RRP: £8.99
Biographical Notes: Whitney Scharer