“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.
They say there are only two basic plots: a stranger comes to town, or the hero sets off on a journey. So far this summer I’ve enjoyed two novels that exemplify one or the other model.
First is The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows, co-author of the endearing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This atmospheric historical novel is set in the sweltering summer of 1938. Layla Beck, a spoiled senator’s daughter, has been sent to Macedonia, West Virginia by the WPA to document the town’s story in advance of its sesquicentennial. Her uncle pulls strings to get her the job even though he thinks his flighty niece is “exactly as fit to work on the project as a chicken is to drive a Buick.”
From a lunatic Civil War general onwards, Macedonia has certainly had a colorful history. The problem is that all the local lights want to skew history to present themselves in the most favorable light. This applies to the family Layla boards with as well, the Romeyns. Felix and Jottie’s father ran the American Everlasting Hosiery Company until a devastating fire some 20 years ago – blamed on Jottie’s old sweetheart, Vause Hamilton.
Now Felix’s twelve-year-old daughter Willa, who narrates much of the novel, wants to get to the bottom of things. What really happened during that factory fire? Why are the Romeyns snubbed around town? Has her divorcé father turned to bootlegging, and can she stop Miss Beck from bewitching him? Like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or Flavia de Luce in Alan Bradley’s mysteries, Willa is a spunky heroine whose curiosity carries the plot.
Once again Barrows makes good use of the epistolary format by inserting the letters Layla sends and receives during her time in Macedonia. Third person narration also gets us into the mind of Jottie, one of the strongest characters. However, later sections of the novel get a little bogged down in Jottie’s romantic history, and overall it is too long by at least a quarter. Barrows is better at capturing everyday speech and routines than momentous activities like a factory strike, but she certainly evokes the oppressive heat of a long American summer.
As Willa concludes, “The truth of other people is a ceaseless business. You try to fix your ideas about them, and you choke on the clot you’ve made.” This novel reminds us that others – whether strangers or family – are always a mystery, and history is a matter of interpretation.
Next up is Safekeeping, the debut novel from Jessamyn Hope. A bit like All the Light We Cannot See, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from Anthony Doerr, the plot revolves around a priceless jewel. In this case it’s a medieval sapphire brooch that has been passed down through Adam’s family for centuries. In 1994, after the death of his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, Adam undertakes a quest to return the brooch to the woman he fell in love with on an Israeli kibbutz and never forgot. Adam has his own problems – he’s a recovering junkie and alcoholic – but he feel he owes this to his grandfather’s memory.
A kibbutz undergoing the bitter transition from communalism to salaried work provides a vivid contrast to Adam’s native New York City. Hope populates her novel with a wonderful cast of eccentric characters. There’s Ulya, a Belarussian prima donna with a shoplifting habit; Claudette, a French Canadian Catholic crippled by mental health issues; Ziva, a kibbutz veteran who fights the changes tooth and nail despite advancing infirmity; and Ofir, a young man who endeavors to finish his military service early so he can return to his beloved piano.
I loved the way that Hope links the disparate characters in a constellation of connections. Acts of generosity, small or large, make a huge difference, even though betrayals past and present still linger. Close third person narration shifts easily between all the characters’ viewpoints, while two surprising historical interludes add depth. Hope handles flashbacks as elegantly as I’ve ever seen: you follow characters into their thoughts and suddenly snap back to the present right along with them.
I’ll confess I was slightly disappointed with the inconclusive ending. We follow the brooch rather than the characters, which means that in two cases we are left wondering about a person’s fate. Still, I was so impressed with the writing, especially the interweaving of past and present, that I will be eager to watch Hope’s career. Safekeeping is published by Fig Tree Books, a champion of modern Jewish literature, and has one of the most terrific book covers I’ve seen in a while.