I’m a bit of an accidental war tourist. I never plan these things but somehow, I’ve been to the trenches of Verdun, the reconstructed city centre of Ypres, the Passchendaele memorial museum, the D-day beaches and their immense cemeteries, the former sites of concentration camps, the battlegrounds of Malmedy. It seems important somehow, especially for someone my age, several generations comfortably removed from any world war. Yet the sheer scale of these immense cemeteries and their endless lines of identical headstones alone makes it paradoxically hard to comprehend the scale of human suffering, as Stalin’s (alleged) words so efficiently – and harshly – convey. It takes effort to remind yourself that underneath every stone at Tyne Cot lie the remains of an actual person, that the ovens of the Dachau crematorium disposed of the remains of tens, if not hundreds of thousands, that every suitcase piled up in a glass case at the Westerbork Visitor’s Centre belonged to someone who may or may not have liked marmelade. After a while, you stop trying.
For this reason, fiction is important; it can give us those lives, fleshed out into something recognisable as a person rather than a statistic. Faulks’ most famous book, Birdsong, does this admirably, eking out romance and war in equal measures. Birdsong is epic, a modern classic, and any sequel is bound to have difficulties going up against that. Charlotte Gray isn’t as good – not nearly – but it still well worth your time.
Where Birdsong dealt with World War One, Charlotte Gray takes place during the second one (the middle part in the trilogy, The Girl at the Lion D’Or, is set in the Interbellum era). Charlotte is a well-educated Scotswoman, intelligent and diligent, who leaves her protective parents behind for a tedious administrative job in London that also leaves her entirely unsatisfied. On the train, she meets two men who work for the British secret service. They invite her to try out for a position in FANY, the somewhat unfortunately named women’s branch. She is initially reluctant, but the thought stays with her as she performs her rote tasks at the office and falls in love with airman Peter Gregory. Eventually, she joins FANY; because she speaks perfect French – courtesy of a previous séjour in France – they soon decide to utilise her but before she can leave, Gregory goes MIA in France. After she is airdropped into occupied territory, she decides to stay to look for her lost lover.
It’s a fairly predictable plot and the bookends of the story don’t offer much by way of surprise. Charlotte stays in the small southern town of Lavaurette under the assumed name of Dominique Gilbert, working for a Mr. Levade while also working (and having an affair) with his son Julien for the French resistance. The characters aren’t entirely original; Julien is likeable but little more than that, while his father is a little too much Jewish-Catholic mystic to be believed. Yet they’re sweet and you grow to like them. The villain – a local self-aggrandising schoolmaster – is, likewise, expected but effective. They’re all so very French, too.
The novel’s real strength lies in its portrayal of the everyday drag of living through a war. The devil, as it were, is in the details; from the mousy brown Charlotte dies her hair, her woollen underwear and clunky shoes, to the struggle to make a half-decent meal every day out of food rations and meagre black market supplies. When Charlotte dreams of ripe tomatoes and large chunks of cheese on freshly baked bread slathered in olive oil, we feel for her, yet she shrugs it off as she wakes up with steely determination and puritanical acceptance of her predicament. The denizens of Lavaurette, too, spend most of their time discussing the merits of the Vichy regime or weighing their new enemies, the Germans, against the old ones – the British – never once trying to hide their anti-Semitism. And so the war drags on.
The novel, overall, is enjoyable and well-written. Faulks’s prose is occasionally a bit verbose but it flows along well. The book is at its most gripping halfway through, when a continuous state of dread is finally replaced with outright terror, but in the end, it’s all the same as it ever was. To me, there was a sense of disappointment in this, though all the loose ends are neatly tied up, but as a monument to the twisted logic of war, it works. There are deaths, there are survivors. We’re one headstone closer to the scale of it all before moving on with our lives.