Following on from the memoir, A Fifty Year Silence, coincidentally my next read was also set during the Second World War, and in France and I don’t think I’ve read a more heart-rending tale, be warned if you choose this book do make sure you have a handy stash of hankies because each time I thought it couldn’t possible wring any more emotion from me, it did just that!
As the book opens in 1995 an elderly widow in Oregon is sent an invitation to attend a ceremony in France for those who helped during the war. Interspersed throughout the book we get insights into this woman’s emotions as she remembers those days.
Vianne and her sister Isabelle are separated by a number of years and experiences as little Isabelle was only four when their beloved Maman died and their father, left traumatised by the first World War sent them away unable and seemingly unwilling to look after his daughters. Vianne fell in love with the man who would become her husband, Antoine but Isabelle felt the rejection keenly and became increasingly rebellious. And then came the war, and the Nazis swiftly followed by curfews, hunger and blackouts.
Isabelle is keen to do something worthwhile and joins the resistance fighters whilst Vianne has one of the rooms in her house occupied by a Nazi soldier. As a mother her first and only priority is her young daughter Sophie but as the war continues and those she cares about in her home town are carted away the line between right and wrong becomes blurred.
With a bit of imagination it is possible to recreate the long queues for food, to paint a picture of the increasingly emancipated French, harder I think to create the moral dilemmas that these people faced daily. To fight against the occupying forces or to collude with them to ensure the smallest of favours for those you love? Well I have to say Kristen Hannah manages this feat by setting the scene incrementally, as they would have happened in life so that while I could see Isabelle fighting for freedom, I could also anticipate that her actions would have consequences for those who she loved and those who loved her and while some of the town railed against the merest hint of favouritism, how in these circumstances, nothing stays the same for long.
At 450 pages long this is one of those tales that seemingly has a whole country’s history packed into it, there is not a page wasted which doesn’t tell us something about what the reality of those long years of war was like, for all sections of society. It is easy to think that those left behind in an occupied country simply had to keep their eyes down and get on but that is forgetting that they didn’t know it was going to end one day, they may have hoped but living took up all of their energy. This isn’t a book that hides the awfulness, there are scenes in concentration camps which are painful to read but no less symbolic is the draping of the town in Nazi flags, the enforcement of the wearing of the yellow stars for the Jewish population or the betrayal of their own police in rooting out those who disobeyed the Nazi rule. I learnt so more about the French Resistance Movement and the corresponding life lived by the French living under German rule from this book, with the underlying research strong but not overpoweringly forced into the storyline.
As the book progressed so did the development of the sister’s characters as we saw how they acted when put under pressure, how the impulsive Isabelle considered her actions more carefully and the cautious Vianne carried out acts that at the beginning you wouldn’t have imagined possible for this traditional French housewife. Kristen Hannah doesn’t just create two stunning protagonists she creates a whole network of believable characters from the damaged father to the friends, the other resistance fighters and the general townsfolk who are all drawn as people who you can believe in.
With a fitting finale there is little not to admire in this book, a testament to human character of a lesson that few of us are all bad, or all good and not everything turns out how you would wish, the strongest people are those who try to live a good life, even in the most awful of circumstance.
I’d like to say a big thank the publishers St Martin’s Press who allowed me to read a copy of this book which was published on 29 January 2015 in return for my honest opinion.