My thanks to NetGalley and publisher Canelo for the ARC. If you think you are going to read a love-story with WW2 as a backdrop - this is not it. This is a story of two lonely people, drawn together by a shared interest in music, trying to survive amidst the desperation, the callousness, the deprivations and rabid incriminations between citizens and neighbours within occupied France prior to the D-Day invasions. (Very apt as I read this during that commemorative week.)
Starting this book, and for several chapters which introduced SS Tank Commander Count Maximilian van Aschau and his close comrades on the Eastern Front in 1943, I began to doubt if I could carry on reading. The reason was that this section was absolutely littered with German phrases and I began to think if it were all like this then, well, no thank you. (I found the glossary at the end of the book - a bit too late!) However, it gets better, except then the narrative is interspersed with such antiquated English terms I really had to give the Dictionary look-up a good work-out. Why the author chooses to use such prose is quite beyond me - but it takes all sorts I suppose - but it certainly disrupts any flow to reading.
Well, I stuck with it. Max takes leave at his ancestral home in Bavaria, before being transferred to France to prepare defences for a possible allied invasion. Lucie Lere is an uneducated farm girl living with her grandmother but working for her mother's restaurant in the village. She is instructed to take Max's lunch to him each day and their shared love of music leads to their relationship.
Village gossip, and Lucie's long-term but disfigured suitor, combine to make their relationship untenable. Reprisals are brutal. One life is saved in return for another.
The atrocities represented are not for the feint-hearted.
Once well into the book I really wanted to find out what happened to Max and Lucie, and to a point we do; however I found the ending rather inconclusive and 'hanging', rather unsatisfactory.
A decent-enough story, but the use of language both in the foreign and antiquated sense really spoiled it for me. Not a smooth read at all.
This novel is also a story of resistance – both in terms of the heroic Maquis and also in the personal lives of the three major protagonists – the decorated German officer and war hero, Max von Ashau and two French villagers, Lucie and Herve, childhood sweethearts – all three scarred by war and its brutality, their lives utterly changed and defined by this war, but who still ultimately refuse to be governed by hate.
So, for me, this is, in many respects, an exasperating book. Some of it is very good. Most of the narrative is compelling and well-paced, the characters vivid and well-drawn. The emotional subtext is thoughtful and perceptive, clearly outlining the conflicted ambiguity in the emotions of the conquerors and conquered. The author shows clearly that those on the sidelines have the luxury of primary emotions – love, hate, anger – whereas those caught up in the maelstrom of war and resistance experience a far more confused and complicated range of feeling. The description of life in St Gervais and its inhabitants is credible and engaging. The central theme of love across the lines of war is in some respects reminiscent of Irene Nemirovsky's "Suite Francaise".
However, where the book falls down is in the over-detailed descriptions – battles too often sound as if they were lifted from "Boys Own Annual" and sloppy use of language, that distances the reader where it needs to draw us in. In particular, the use of the word "infibulation" – usually employed to describe Female Genital Mutilation – is here used to describe Russia's ravaged landscape. It is offensive and meaningless. This is a real pity because this is a good, if flawed, story and some of it is very well imagined and described. My only regret is that with careful editing, it could have been a great deal better.
Breakaway Reviewers received a copy of the book to review.