“Perhaps, Claudine thought, warmth and kindness didn’t have a country or a language.”
Caroline Lea’s strong debut novel is set on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France, in the years of German occupation surrounding the Second World War. Although it’s told in a shifting, close third person, the book opens with and keeps returning to the perspective of ten-year-old Claudine Duret. It’s through her eyes that we view the striking first scene, which takes place in June 1940:
When he was on fire, the man smelt bitter. … Even after they had tipped buckets of sea water over him, he still smelt. But sweeter. It reminded her of Maman’s Sunday lunch: roast pork with blackened skin and the cooked fat seeping out through the cracks. Claudine’s mouth watered.
It’s appropriate that Claudine thinks of meat, for the man on fire is Clement Hacquoil, the local butcher. He is the island’s first war injury, the victim of a bombing raid on the St. Helier harbor. As people come together to help him, we meet some of the terrific supporting characters, including Dr. Tim Carter, an Englishman who fears he’ll never fit into this insular community; and Edith Bisson, Claudine’s former babysitter, who concocts herbal remedies.
Two weeks previously there was a call to evacuate and roughly half the island’s population fled – “Like rats … buggering off at the first sign of trouble,” as one old clinger-on taunted. Those who remain are stubborn or without the resources to leave, like Maurice, a former fisherman and now full-time caregiver for his wife Marthe, who has Huntington’s disease. Dr. Carter is determined to stay even after a German commandant and his troops take over the hospital. Claudine, left to her own devices during her mother’s black moods, makes friends with a German soldier, Gregor, but has unpleasant encounters with other soldiers.
A couple things precipitate the book’s crisis: Marthe’s condition is deteriorating but Dr. Carter thinks treatments available in London could help her; and Gregor is in hiding because the Commandant wants to send him to a work camp. Maurice has the idea of escaping to London with Marthe on his fishing boat, and Gregor, Claudine and Edith plan to go along.
I found the trip preparations a bit belabored, such that the whole novel might be improved by a cut of 60–80 pages. I also wondered whether the contrast between Gregor and Hans, the two main German soldiers we meet, was too stark and stereotyping. However, I loved the book’s distinctive characters, the inconclusive ending I didn’t expect, the snippets of foreign languages (not just German and French, but also Jèrriais) and Lea’s atmospheric descriptions of Jersey. She was born and raised on the island, and in passages like this you can sense her fondness for its landscape:
The island was like a beautiful jewel: formed by years of pressure and compression, shaped by the elements and then constrained and combed and ordered by the metallic tools of man. … To the east, picture-perfect houses, like clutches of crafted eggs, nestling by the golden beaches. To the west, the vast mudflats where children could pour salt into a hole in the mud and razorfish might pop out like a conjuror’s trick. The steady breaking and wombing of the sea, metronomic measure of seeping time.
I would not hesitate to recommend this to book clubs (see the reader questions here, but beware spoilers!) and to fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me. I look forward to reading what Caroline Lea writes next.
Note: When the Sky Fell Apart was published by Text Publishing in the U.K. and Australia on February 25th. It is currently available in the U.S. as a Kindle book; a paperback release is scheduled for November.
My thanks go to Caroline Lea for the free signed copy, won through a Twitter giveaway.