The Woman In The Picture: James Wilson

Movie man's story revealed in subtle shifts of long-shot and close-up
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The Independent Culture

Henry Whitaker, 21, is an Englishman in Germany in 1927. He is searching for Irma Brücke, the widow of the soldier who killed his father - and who was killed in turn by his father's fellow-officer. In Henry's bag are Irma's late husband's field glasses, but he can't find Irma, so he ducks into a jazz bar for a drink - and there she is, waiting for him. A coincidence, the first of many.

Irma's reduced to working as a prostitute, but she won't accept money for the night they spend together. Henry will leave without producing the field glasses, thereby creating narrative tension to offset the curious tension-killing effect of this novel's brief present-day interludes.

Inveigling his way into the film industry, Henry is asked to write a treatment of Mabel Penney's novel New Year's Eve. It so happens that Henry was at school with Penney's nephew Christopher. Cue old boys' reunion and visit to Mabel.

We meet Christopher again later when he is spotted sitting in the window of a café as Henry walks past, having seen evidence of a brutal assault and determined to bring the perpetrator to justice.

"All you're doing is shoving sticking-plaster on a lump of gangrene," Christopher tells him. "Sorry. It's just when you realise what's going on." But Christopher just happens to know what's going on.

One thing James Wilson is very good at is creating a convincing picture of a film studio, with its rods, ropes and cables, tripods, lamps and ladders. Readers who share Wilson's obvious love of cinema will enjoy the gradual accretion of detail. If the patterns of circumstance that threaten to undermine the integrity of the narrative interfere with the suspension of disbelief, the wealth of convincing historical detail may help banish any doubt.

Another thing Wilson is very, very good at is highlighting the unreliability of perception. Do Irma's nod and blush, during a return visit to Germany, indicate that she's pleased Henry remembered the name of her late husband? Or that she's uncomfortable at the revelation in front of her new husband, the faintly sinister Dr Becker, whose hopes for a different kind of cinema that will help Germans to rediscover their "racial pride" are ominious.

The Woman in the Picture has the length and structure of an epic, but it's in Wilson's ability to switch between the long-shot and close-up, and to achieve revelation by doing so, that its virtue lies.

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