Reviews: Vivien Horler
The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn (William Morrow/ Harper Collins)
Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave (Sceptre)
Wars that still echo down our history are slipping beyond human memory. No one alive remembers the Boer War, which continues to have a huge impact on South Africa today, nor World War I.
As for World War II, it ended literally a lifetime ago – 73 years ago this week – and there are fewer and fewer people who remember it.
Within a decade it will be gone from lived experience, and our only access to a conflagration that changed the world will be through novels that bring it alive.
Two absorbing war novels demonstrate the courage demanded by people who lived through the war, not all of them soldiers.
The Alice Network is a page-turner about women spies in France during World War I, and how their experiences in that war affect their lives during and just after World War II.
It is London in 1947, two years after World War II has ended, and Charlie St Clair is a wealthy young American whose mother has brought her to Europe for an abortion. A spirited Charlie has consented to the journey only because she wants to go to France to find her beloved cousin Rose, who was like a sister to her and who disappeared there during the war.
Charlie’s father has made inquiries to no avail, and the family believe Rose is dead. But Charlie cannot accept this. She is resourceful and has made some inquiries of her own, receiving the address of a woman in London, Eve Gardiner, who may have some information.
In London Charlie evades her mother and goes to the address to find an elderly, half-crazed old woman who is clearly drunk and threatens her with a war-time Luger. Despite having crippled, misshapen hands, it is clear Even knows how to use the firearm.
It emerges that back in 1915 Eve, an orphan who grew up in northern France and speaks fluent French and German, applied for and got a job with British intelligence. She was sent to France to join a network of spies in the Lille region.
Eve was sent to find a job as a waitress in an upmarket Lille restaurant much patronised by senior German officers. Her job was to pour their drinks and gain what snatches of information she could as they drunkenly discussed the progress of the war.
Forward to 1947, and it emerges Eve does in fact have some information about Charlie’s cousin Rose. Eve is persuaded to travel to France with Charlie and Eve’s driver and man-of-all-work in a bid to find out what they can.
But it emerges Eve has reasons of her own for the journey, which have a lot to do with the poisonous relationship she had with the Lille restaurateur, a man branded a collaborator by his neighbours.
The chapters see the narrative switching from 1915 to 1947 and back again. Eve’s experiences as an often frightened, always hungry but determined young spy in Occupied France make for compelling reading. And World War II features strongly as the travellers uncover what happened both to Rose and to the restaurateur during that conflict, leading up to a gripping finale.
Chris Cleave’s wonderful Everyone Brave is Forgiven went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in 2016. It is set squarely in World War II: in London during the Blitz and on the Mediterranean island of Malta during the siege.
Cleave is an award-winning London-based writer whose second novel The Other Hand also made the bestseller lists, but I had not come across his work before. I now intend to read everything he has written.
This book was inspired by his grandfather’s experiences on Malta during the war, and Cleave visited the island where he was able to talk to people who remembered the war.
For Britain the island functioned as a vital foothold in the Mediterranean, a fact that drew murderous bombing from both the Germans and the Italians and left the island strewn with rubble.
The novel tells the story of three people caught up in the sweep of hostilities, some of whom chose to fight, and others who did not but found themselves on the frontline anyway.
The day war is declared 18-year-old Mary North signs up. She is hoping for a post as an agent behind enemy lines, but in fact is assigned to teaching children who for one reason or another have not been evacuated. One of them is Zachary Lee, the son of a black American minstrel whose troupe performs nightly in the bombed West End.
Mary is a posh girl who falls in love with Tom, a non-combatant who is in charge of the local school district. Unlike his flatmate Alastair, Tom chooses not to enlist – he doesn’t believe the war will last.
Alastair, on the other hand, joins the Royal Artillery and after being evacuated from Dunkirk, is posted to Malta.
Chris Cleave has vividly recreated both worlds – those of London and Malta. London is a place of rubble and parties, shows and bombs, love and sudden death. Malta too is a place of rubble, of hunger, of bitter outrage against the Germans.
Mary discovers just how random death can be – a decision to turn left instead of right, a delayed action shell going off after the all-clear, a motor accident in the black-out.
Cleave writes clever dialogue, and the main characters do a fine line in hilarious dead-pan banter. One evening Tom pours white wine and tells his companions: “This stuff is actually champagne, only the bubbles have been requisitioned to give buoyancy to our submarine fleet.”
Zachary gets some pretty good lines too.
This is a highly readable novel, one with heft and substance. I enjoyed it immensely.