Top critical review
Best read as a record of the French Occupation
on 30 November 2016
This is a Frankenstein's monster of a book: individual parts are perfectly workable but put together what we have is a disjointed, fragmented, messy entity.
The first half of the book is a set of character studies with almost a journalistic feel as various Parisians flee their city in advance of the German army: there is plenty of acute observation and nice moments of description, not least the scathing exposure of non-comaraderie as Parisian refugees are not always regarded with compassion or succour by their French compatriots. Némirovsky's lack of sentimentality is welcome, and she captures some of the chaos, both emotional and material, as war reaches into Parisian homes.
The second - and better - part, bears little relationship to the first. Now we're in a small French village which is occupied by the German army who are billetted amongst the residents. The links to the first section are minor, and it's like a new book. Again, there are lots of subtle, telling moments but they don't really come together into a coherent story. To Némirovsky's credit, while she offers a nuanced picture of the erotic frisson created when these young, handsome soldiers descend on the village and into the homes of men-less women, she remains acute to the problematics of war and the power differentials involved. While she gestures towards the kind of across-the-tracks love story beloved of romantic novelists, she has a far more mature understanding of the complexities and contradictions of war and disrupts any kind of romanticism.
The ending is abrupt: I literally turned the page expecting to read on and found the book was done. So overall this has so much potential but, given the history of the book, what we have is less than the sum of its parts. As a record of the French Occupation it has much to offer but as a novel it's frustratingly unsatisfying and unresolved.