Tuesday, June 18, 2024

the last book I read

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks.

So there's this woman, erm ... *checks notes* ... Charlotte Gray. Daughter of a First World War veteran, with whom she has a slightly prickly relationship, keen to help out with the Allied war effort now that it's 1942 and the Second World War is in full swing but a bit removed from the action in her native Scotland. 

So she relocates to London, that being the centre of the war effort, and takes a job at a doctor's surgery. It's not long before opportunities of various kinds come her way, though, largely through the time-honoured route of meeting people at parties: firstly a man called Cannerley who has some connections with the shady G Section who seem to organise clandestine activities in France, and secondly Peter Gregory, an RAF pilot, haunted by the loss of most of his friends over the past few years but still seemingly keen to conduct a daring sortie, all guns blazing, into Charlotte's knickers. 

Charlotte happens to be fluent in French after spending a lot of time there during her childhood, a thing that for obvious reasons is of intense interest to Cannerley and his organisation. After a few discreet meetings Charlotte is inducted into the organisation and given an initial mission: parachute into the occupied part of France, make contact with some local representatives of the Resistance and distribute some vital radio components. At the same time Peter Gregory is being given some orders of his own for an airborne mission into France.

Peter's mission starts first and Charlotte soon gets some bad news: he's gone missing. She decides that the best thing to do is get on with her own mission and see if she can locate him while she's over there. So after some rudimentary spy training (basically: don't do this) and some equally rudimentary parachute training (open door, jump out, try not to die) Charlotte finds herself jumping out of a plane and making contact with some people in the village of Lavaurette, including Julien Levade (codename Octave) who leads the Resistance operation. His father, a semi-retired painter, provides some cover for Charlotte (now going by the name Dominique) by employing her as a housekeeper in his rambling old mansion on the outskirts of the village.

Charlotte conducts various side quests while she's staying in Lavaurette, including travelling as far as Limoges to deliver some vital radio parts, all the while keeping an ear out for news of the fate of Peter Gregory. Charlotte's calmness and efficiency gain the respect of her Resistance colleagues and her superiors in London, but then Shit Gets Real as the flimsy pretence of the independence of the Vichy regime is crushed and the Nazis roll into town, bringing with them a ramping up of the existing regime of rounding up Jews and deporting them. This includes the parents of local boys André and Jacob, the boys subsequently being hidden by the Resistance in various locations around the village, but also old man Levade, betrayed by some weaselly local collaborators. After an I ASK ZE KVESTIONS show-trial at the Levade house the old man is carted off and loaded onto a train, while the local police are charged with guarding Julien and Charlotte. Julien facilitates Charlotte's escape, kills the collaborator and then flees into hiding. Charlotte, meanwhile, heads for Paris, partly with the intention of making contact with someone who can facilitate her return to England, but also partly to attempt to intercept André and Jacob, who were inevitably discovered by the Gestapo and taken away.

Peter Gregory, meanwhile, is alive and mostly well, though limping a bit after breaking his leg parachuting into a tree. By extraordinary good luck he was rescued by some people sympathetic to the Allied cause, and by further extraordinary good luck (his French being rudimentary at best) they manage to arrange his transit to Marseille where he meets up with some English-speaking contacts and is spirited back to England by a circuitous route traversing North Africa.

Charlotte makes contact with her man in Paris and arranges her transport back to England; she also visits the internment camp at Drancy where most of the deportees from the village are held, but the massive industrial scale of the operation prevents her from seeing any of the individuals she's looking out for, still less effecting some sort of daring rescue. With ruthless inevitability the process grinds on to its conclusion, with the internees either dying en route to the death camps (as old man Levade does) or surviving the trip only to then be exterminated in the gas chambers (as André and Jacob are).

Charlotte returns to London to be debriefed by G Section and mildly scolded for exceeding the terms of her original mission, and to be tearfully reunited with (and subsequently de-briefed by, oy oy) Peter Gregory. 

This is the third novel in Sebastian Faulks' loose trilogy of books about France - the other two are The Girl At The Lion d'Or, which I haven't read (although I was present at a book-signing for it with Faulks himself about 35 years ago), and Birdsong, which featured here in February 2015. All three feature the First World War as a major theme - Birdsong is mostly set during it and includes many scenes set in the trenches, and while Charlotte Gray is set during the Second World War it carries heavy echoes of the earlier conflict. Both the older Levade and Charlotte's own father are haunted by their memories of what took place, and Lavaurette is oddly demographically skewed by having a large proportion of a whole generation of men wiped out. 

I think on the whole Birdsong is a better book, as enjoyable as Charlotte Gray is - I think most of this is related to pacing; the Nazis only turn up and things Kick Off in a big way fully two-thirds of the way through the book. Before that we get a fair bit of scene-setting in England, including a brief sex scene which won Faulks the Bad Sex Award in 1998 (which he slightly humourlessly did not turn up to collect), and quite a lot of Charlotte hanging out with Julien and his father and blissfully bicycling from village to village in the sunshine delivering radio crystals and the like, which is lovely but oddly peril-free. The flipside of this is that when Charlotte encounters the full industrial efficiency of the Nazi killing machine she is, as resourceful as she is, utterly powerless to do anything about it, and André and Jacob's harrowing journey to their inevitable end is genuinely quite difficult to read.

Narratively that's obviously the right thing to do, a daring James Bond-style rescue mission being completely implausible, but it's a bit of a downer, and it makes the subsequent tearful reunions in England a bit hollow. This is no doubt intentional - my only quibble would be that the neatness of Charlotte's resolution of her mysterious childhood trauma involving her father is a bit nice and convenient, and the implication that, hey, the boys' deaths in the gas chamber weren't completely in vain because it in some way enabled Charlotte to get over being a bit upset about some childhood shit from twenty years earlier is a bit hard to swallow. Indeed you might reasonably ask: what was the sum total of Charlotte's achievements in France? Some minor courier work and encouragement to the Resistance, sure, but aside from making some cursory enquiries with his contacts she discovered next to nothing about Gregory's whereabouts while she was there and contributed precisely nothing to his safe return home, and, as mentioned previously, didn't manage to save any of the Lavaurette villagers from the gas chambers.

The World War II theme puts Charlotte Gray in the company of quite a long list of earlier books featured here - the review of The Reader has a list. Its having a person's full name as a title puts it on a slightly shorter list which also includes Laura Blundy, Riddley Walker and Fanny Hill. It was also filmed (starring Cate Blanchett as Charlotte) in 2001.

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