One June day just two weeks after those who had decided to evacuate had left on a boat to the mainland, the sky in Jersey was ablaze, the Germans were bombing and poor Clement Hacquoil, the local butcher is set alight. Watching from the side-lines is ten-year old Claudine whose own father has left the island to fight the war against the Nazis.
This shocking opening sets a scene that is only two believable with the author using the German bombs as a way of introducing some of the main characters that populate this often heart-breaking tale. Dr Carter is an English doctor who if he’d followed the orders should have departed on the boat but is needed on an island which still has a sizeable population left. Edith is an older local woman who is on hand to help the injured butcher with her knowledge of plants which can help the sick and the injured. The locals under Edith’s watchful eye remove Clement from the beach and take him to the hospital but he is too sick to attempt to leave on the last boat out of the island before the German soldiers arrive.
Jersey was under German occupation for five long years. Years where food was short, the remote location and the sheer number of German soldiers which meant that there simply wasn’t enough food to go around. This shortage is mentioned regularly throughout the book in a number of ways including the variety of hot drinks and dishes the islanders made in place of their pre-war favourites; acorn coffee anyone? Potato peel pie? Mmm…
In When the Sky Fell Apart the Commandment in charge of the island is a real brute who has the local population and his own men jumping to ever changing rules. Of course in reality the rules were long, and often petty designed to stop the islanders seeking to defend themselves whilst the Germans busied themselves with the help of the prisoners of war to fortify the island with bunkers, tunnels and sea walls that are still evident today.
So while the story is based on a historical event that left a long shadow, the book is peopled by those of the author’s imagination. And she has created a really good cast. The key members being Maurice, a man with a sick wife, Edith the local healer, Dr Carter and Claudine who all see the war and the occupying soldiers through the prism of their own war years. The characters are varied, at different stages of their lives and all battling their own personal battles because of even a war didn’t stop all other battles small and large that people face in life. I liked all the characters because each one had their good points, and at times not so good. The shifting alliances underlining what people need to do to survive in extreme circumstances. This really is a book where the human element is as strong as the true events that it is depicting and I found both elements equally compelling.
While the years of the war roll by we get to see the personal battles and the way our key characters interact with each other and their neighbours on the island and with so much to engage the reader, the book avoided that mid-book slump that historical novels can be particularly susceptible to. I think it helps that the author was born and bred in Jersey with the local names rolling off the tongue, or perhaps that should be page!
Some of the events this book is based upon are very familiar to me and have also been captured in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society but the story itself is far more than historical events, this is a book where I cared about the characters and willed them to have the best war years possible, and hope that when it was all over, their post year lives were spent in tranquillity.
I’d like to thank the publicist FMcM Associates for sending me a copy of When the Sky Fell Apart ahead of the paperback publication.