Reading is an important part of writing. It helps to immerse the writer into the same genre as their novel. While I was writing my third novel, Arlette's War, I read many novels set during the second World War. Out of the dozen or more I read over the course of the year, I've chosen four favourites to write short reviews about.
Fair Stood The Wind For France by H.E. Bates
British pilot, John Franklin, crashes his Wellington bomber in occupied France. He and his crew of four, set off across the countryside looking for help. John has suffered an injury and becomes delirious with infection. A French family live in a riverside mill and agree to shelter the men. Their daughter, Francoise, nurses John and they fall in love during his convalescence. But the Germans are closing in on their remote mill. Franklin knows he must leave the mill as soon as his health is recovered; his very presence puts Françoise and her family at risk. However, Franklin can no longer think of his future without the woman he loves. They flee together, travelling through the beautiful French countryside. They constantly hide and wait before moving on whenever it’s safe. The tension builds to a crescendo as they make their escape. I found the ending surprising, powerful and moving.
I felt that Fair Stood the Wind for France was more of a romance than a war story. It’s a tale of young love blossoming in the least likely of places, at the most inconvenient of times – the Second World War. Having said that, it was full of tension and unexpected twists and turns that had me hyperventilating as I read it. Some war novels are like slideshows of atrocities, one frame after another. Bates finds time for reflection and beautiful language.
'There were six or seven stalls, and under the grey-green awnings were laid out the perishable produce of the late summer that could not be transported: small green-pink peaches, sweet green grapes, soft early pears, a few apples. The girl stopped at one stall and picked up a peach and pressed it with her thumb and fingers. She put it down again and he saw the mark of her thumb like a bruise on the pink skin of the fruit. He stood for a moment or two watching it, fascinated, as if expecting to see it disappear like the dent made by a child in a rubber ball, and then he turned and the girl was no longer there” (p. 66)
Fair Stood the Wind for France is a book about young love, the ache of loss, the bravery of ordinary people and the powerful need to survive against the odds. It’s a book that reminds us that although mankind can be destructive and cruel, we can also be brave, trusting and tender.
Gardens of Stone by Stephen Grady
This book is a memoir and begins when the author, Stephen Grady, is 86 years old and living in Greece. He tells of his life as a teenager fighting for the French Resistance during World War II. Stephen Grady was only 14 when the German army began advancing into Northern France. His father was English and tended the war graves and his mother was French and fighting her own personal battle against blindness. At first the German occupation was only an exciting game to Stephen. He and his friend Marcel thought it was an adventure to collect souvenirs from crashed Messerschmitts and the wreckage of strafed convoys. But the game ended when they were caught and arrested. The boys were imprisoned and faced the possibility of a firing squad every day.
This is a gripping coming-of-age story. The first part of his memoir captures his family life, where he lives with a conflicting mix of English and French ideals. Being bored teenagers with dreams of exploration, the two friends become involved in some very risky activities, not realizing the dire consequences.
The story is one of courage and daring in Stephen’s fight against the Germans. Some of his experiences still haunt him to this day. His memoir vividly brings to life the drama of the French Resistance’s work in the rural areas through a teenager’s eyes. Stephen Grady has written a brilliant book full of drama, terror, excitement, humour and sadness. It’s a story of loneliness and courage and is at times, painfully poignant.
When Stephen was finally released, aged 16, he was recruited in to the French Resistance. Years later he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the American Medal of Freedom for his work.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Set in Germany between 1939 and 1943, The Book Thief tells the story of a girl named Liesel. The book is narrated by Death. Death first encounters nine-year-old Liesel after her brother dies on a train to Molching. She steals a book entitled The Gravedigger's Handbook, which she finds lying in the snow beside her brother’s grave. Liesel is given away to foster parents by her mother, who then disappears.
Her German foster parents, Hans and Rosa Herbermann, are given a small remuneration for taking her in, but remain poor. Hans is a tall, quiet man with silver eyes. He’s a painter and decorator but also plays the accordion. He’s kind to Liesel and teaches her how to read and write. Rosa, however, is gruff and swears a great deal but she also has a big heart. In order to earn more money, Rose washes clothes for rich people in the town. Liesel makes friends with her neighbour Rudy, a boy with 'hair the colour of lemons.'
One night Max Vandenburgh arrives at their home. He’s a Jewish friend of Hans’ from the First World War. It was Max who taught Hans how to play the accordion. Hans is a German who does not hate Jews, although he understands the dreadful risks involved in hiding him.
'Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew.' (p.239)
Max is hidden in the basement. He and Liesel become close friends and he writes and illustrates a beautiful book for her, called The Standover Man. This is a short story he made by painting with white paint over the pages of Mein Kampf, because he didn’t have any paper.
Markus Zusak’s book is inspirational. His choice of words is awe-inspiring. Not only is his book uplifting, it also occasionally reduced me to tears. His descriptions are so flawless that I had to re-read many sections more than once just to relive their beauty.
'People and Jews and clouds all stopped. They watched. As he stood, Max looked first at the girl and then stared directly into the sky that was wide and blue and magnificent. There were heavy beams - planks of sun - falling randomly, wonderfully, onto the road. Clouds arched their backs to look behind as they started again to move on. "It's such a beautiful day," he said, and his voice was in many pieces. A great day to die. A great day to die, like this.' (p.543-4)
Zusak’s writing is lyrical yet haunting. Death is our guide and narrator but interestingly, in some ways he seems quite human. For example, he has real feelings. He experiences both sadness and joy in The Book Thief. He gets depressed. To help distract him from his sadness and never-ending work, he regularly fixates on the colour of the sky at the time of each human death.
Death tries to find ways to give meaning to his work. One of the main things he does is collect stories of courageous humans. Liesel is particularly interesting to him because of her courage and her personality. Stories like hers provide a motive to carry on with his job. He retells these stories, he says, 'to prove to myself that you, and your human existence, are worth it.'
Many things prevent this book from being too depressing. Its dark storyline is never morbid. Humour is interweaved throughout the pages and the richness of the descriptions and depth of the characters counteract any gloominess. It’s a fabulous book that I would recommend you read; a story where ordinary Germans are at just as much at risk of being executed as the Jews themselves, if they offer them protection.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
In 1941, Irène Némirovsky began writing a book that would convey the magnitude of what she was living through; the German invasion. She did this by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary people of France. When Irène Némirovsky began working on Suite Française, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew. In 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.
Suite Française falls into two parts. It begins in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. It tells of the astonishing story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians rush to flee the invasion, human recklessness surfaces in every imaginable way. A wealthy mother searches for sweets in a city without food and a married couple obsess about losing their jobs while their world is literally falling apart around them. The educated and wealthy trudge alongside the poor and unprivileged, but both unmask the same pettiness and self-involvement.
‘Paris had its sweetest smell, the smell of chestnut trees in bloom and of petrol with a few grains of dust that crack under your teeth like pepper. In the darkness the danger seemed to grow. You could smell the suffering in the air, in the silence. Everyone looked at their house and thought, tomorrow it will be in ruins. Tomorrow I will have nothing left.’
The second part of the book tells of how citizens of a provincial village must learn to coexist with German soldiers. The locals must learn to spend their days with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts. Despite the chaos, the hypocrisy, the evil and the confrontation, hope survives.
‘How sad the world is, so beautiful yet so absurd...’
For me, Suite Française is rightly hailed a masterpiece. It is written with an almost casual brilliance. Both bleak and harrowing, it can also be darkly funny. Irène Némirovsky died before revising this novel, but as incomplete as it is, the narrative shows an empathy and understanding towards her characters I haven’t read elsewhere. It is non-judgmental, eloquent, witty, and romantic. It has a quality about it that makes it, in my opinion, magnificent.
‘But what is certain is that in five, ten or twenty years, this problem unique to our time, according to him, will no longer exist, it will be replaced by others...Yet this music, the sound of this rain on the windows, the great mournful creaking of the cedar tree in the garden outside, this moment, so tender, so strange in the middle of war, this will never change, not this, this is forever.'