Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Another good read.

After my post Six of the Best which reviewed six books that had caught my imagination, I received an e-mail from an American writer – Libby Cole, who said she enjoyed reading the review of The Guernsey and Potato Peel Pie Society and that she was ‘the unwitting author of it prequel: War on the Margins and to let her know if I would like a copy for review.

Warning her that I was not a fast reader, I asked Libby for any background information – how she came to write the book for instance.

‘This book arose out of my midlife crisis. I am a radiologist, and the whole medical rat race was a huge disappointment to me. I decided to get a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. This book was originally my thesis (my advisor suggested doing something “different” and was happy with the idea of historical fiction). After two trips to Jersey and several years of scribbling, the thesis was completed. I then decided to try to publish it. I couldn’t interest a publisher, so I self- published it.

Then the UK blogosphere got wind of it, and it was picked up by the UK publisher Duckworth.’

Have you ever wondered how you would comport yourself if you had lived in Nazi occupied Britain? War on the Margins set in Jersey; one of the Channel Islands close to the mainland, gives you a glimmer of what it would be like to live with near starvation, oppression, suspicion, betrayal and great courage as part and parcel of everyday existence.

War on the Margins spans five wartime years 1940-1945 on the island of Jersey. The Channel Islands belong to the Queen but after the fall of France they were deemed to be indefensible by the British and the islands were occupied by the Nazis. Many of the locals had fled but there were some Jewish people and some with Jewish connections who experienced the full force of a Nazi regime.

The book is based on fact and with some original documents and papers; I had to remind myself that it was fiction. Two of the main characters - Lucille and Suzanne lesbian lovers and surrealist artists - are based on Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. A timid, female clerk Marlene, who works in the Aliens Office, has tenuous Jewish ancestry but feels a net closing round her and flees, sewing a few worldly goods into the lining of her coat.

She cycles to another part of the island and after spending the night in a chapel she is discovered by Lucille and Suzanne and taken under their wings. In return for their kindness she is encouraged to help them in their Resistance work. The two women were fearless and slipped propaganda papers into the pockets of the enemy with gay abandon. Not surprisingly Marlene felt safer with them than living amongst Jerry bags and informers. They became her family along with the precious voices from the BBC. The Beeb was a life line to Marlene although she wished they mentioned Jersey some times.

As supplies from France dried up they lived mainly from eating swedes and drinking ersatz coffee made from parsnips. Although the suedes were beautifully sculpted by the artists – they yearned for real food.

As conditions became more dangerous Marlene had to live in the cellar where the crystal wireless set gave encouraging news of the Allies’ progress. Lucille and Suzanne had each other and, in her late twenties, Marlene longed for someone to love.

Inevitably with the risks they took, Lucille and Suzanne were arrested and imprisoned. They managed to give a pre-arranged warning to Marlene and, with just time to collect her precious coat, she fled again. She took refuge in an abandoned farm house and there met a ‘bundle of rags’ who she came to know as Peter, a Pole who had escaped from a hellish life in a labour camp. At last Marlene found someone to love.

Meanwhile Lucille and Suzanne faced their greatest punishment - that of separation and eventually were sentenced to death.

War on the Margins was an eye opener to me and as a child during WW2 I wish I had known more about the plight of the Channel islanders. It seems to me we left them in the lurch. I came to care for the characters in the book and remembering how victims of war often seemed to lose the battle just as the war ends, I desperately wanted them to survive but I will refrain from giving the game away.

One passage I found strange: when the author describes Marlene she says:

Marlene was plain. She had, perhaps Vivien Leigh’s eyebrows, but not her exquisite bone structure. She had Gracie Fields’ wispy hair but not her dazzling smile.

The tragic Pauline, who Marlene later betrays, is described as- a tall girl who resembled an auburn–haired Vivien Leigh.

Both these women were highly popular during WW2 but I still think this is a strange description. Otherwise I enjoyed reading the book and recommend it


R. Sherman said...

It sounds interesting. I've never heard of one using a work of fiction for a Master's Thesis before. People must be running out of facts.


kenju said...

It sounds interesting. Just reading what you wrote makes me profoundly happy that I was very young and living in the US during that time.

Pat said...

Randall: you would know more about that than I do. There were lots of historical facts and genuine documents.

Judy: not only Picasa problems but the computer has been down all morning.
Yes I wold have hated to have been occupied.

Leigh Russell said...

It's a fecund period for literature, isn't it? Have you read the book about the double agent, also based on a true story? I think it's called Zigzag. What amazing lives some people lead!

Pat said...

Leigh: no I haven't. It sounds tempting but it will have to join a longish list:)

angryparsnip said...

Interesting post today.

Masterpiece on PBS had a series about the occupation of the Channel Islands.
I didn't remember this from my history studies and I went to school at a time when they actually taught and students learned so that series was a surprise.
"The Guernsey and Potato Peel Society" is on my reading list.

cheers, parsnip

Pat said...

Parsnip: yes I was told about the film and would be very interested to see it.

Young at Heart said...

fascinating stuff....i must say i do love stories and films of this time was recently watching the brilliant 'The Way To The Stars'........I do love Terence Rattigan!!

Pat said...

Young at Heart: I loved working on his plays; he really understood women.

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

This sounds like fascinating book, Pat...and as I read more of what you wrote, I was reminded that there was some TV Film or Mini-Series that took place during that time and was about the plight of the people living under the Nazi regime---I remember thinking at the time, that I had no idea that this had happened, and I found it quite shocking...I cannot remember the name of this film or anything else, except it was very very good.
II am going to look for that book.

Pat said...

Naomi: a number of people have mentioned a series about life under occupation of the Channel Islands and I must try to find it.
I hope you like the book.