There’s been a lot of novels written about the second world war. I especially have liked the ones that feature strong women characters like Code Name Verity, The Nightingale, and The Alice Network. This is another.
Kiernan, author of The Hummingbird and The Curiosity, handles this historical fiction beautifully. The characters in the book are well drawn, with apprentice baker Emma at the center. Though heartbreaking and brutal as the stories of war can be, the dignity and triumph of the spirit in hard times is evident and makes the book still an uplifting one.
Set in France during the occupation, Emma silently and stealthily finds ways to alleviate the suffering in her coastal village. With quiet calm but with brilliant resistance, she fights back by blessing her villagers in a myriad of ways. Emma is a baker and is given a ration to bake loaves for the Germans. By grinding straw, and adding it to the flour, she is able to bake two extra loaves which help to feed hungry neighbours and that’s not all. Even under the watchful eyes of armed soldiers, she risks her life to build a clandestine network of barter and trade that sustains the village and thwarts the occupiers. But much more importantly than food or supplies, Emma brings hope.
“When you don’t know what to do for yourself, do something for somebody else.”
Hugely predictable yet surprisingly compelling, this humorous and adequately inspirational unsentimental romantic novel is a ‘feel good’ read. It reminded me a little of Me Before You by Jojo Moyes because it struck a similar tone. A good one to bring to the cottage or pack in your carry-on. Even as the bestseller headline screams “Unforgettable love story in the darkest of circumstances!” this is not great literature, but I give it credit for readability and almost making me miss my stop on the subway. For this genre, it is well done.
The flyleaf describes the storyline best:
“Margaret Jacobsen has a bright future ahead of her: a fiancé she adores, her dream job, and the promise of a picture-perfect life just around the corner. Then, suddenly, on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, everything she worked for is taken away in one tumultuous moment. In the hospital and forced to face the possibility that nothing will ever be the same again, Margaret must figure out how to move forward on her own terms while facing long-held family secrets, devastating heartbreak, and the idea that love might find her in the last place she would ever expect.”
“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
From one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time, this is an unforgettable true story about the redeeming potential of mercy and a call to fix a broken system of justice. Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor and wrongly convicted on death row. This book reads like a John Grisham novel, it is hugely compelling and engaging. It is a moving and personal account of stories of courage and integrity that will keep you riveted. I listened to the audio version which is narrated by the author himself. This is a great interview with the author:
If we think problems such as slavery and racism are any better in 2018, we are fooling ourselves. Stories of police violence and racial profiling tell a different story, which is why this is such a critical and important book. Some people even refer to mass incarceration of black people in America as contemporary slavery.
Walter McMillian was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman who worked as a clerk in a dry clearing store in Monroeville, Alabama. There was no tangible evidence against Mr. McMillian. He was held on Death Row prior to being convicted and sentenced to death. His trial lasted only a day and a half. Three witnesses testified against Mr. McMillian and the jury ignored multiple alibi witnesses, who were black, who testified that he was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. The trial judge overrode the jury’s sentencing verdict for life without parole and sentenced Mr. McMillian to death.
Anthony Ray Hinton, another one of Stevenson’s clients, just released a book called The Sun Does Shine, which Oprah Winfrey has endorsed and has already hit mainstream book outlets like Costco. It is a memoir of how Hinton was falsely convicted and released after 30 years. How he talks about a lifetime on death row is truly remarkable.
Wayne Johnston has been an author on my radar to read since his most popular novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams about Newfoundland was published. Unbeknownst to me, when I chose this latest of his novels to begin with, it actually completes his Newfoundland Trilogy with The Custodian of Paradise in between.
As historical fiction, this trilogy tells a social and political tale of a nation as it grows and becomes part of Canada. This final instalment has a compelling opening scene where a kid comes home from school during the first snowstorm of the year to find the door locked, the car gone, and his parents vanished. How Ned, an only child, copes with this weird event, become the foundation of the story and echoes throughout.
The author has some very clear themes about the possibility of healing from tragic and mysterious circumstances–how one can cope and perhaps overcompensate for a rough start, and how family secrets can undermine an otherwise firm foundation. Can a personality be warped by loss and is there any hope for redemption? Echoing the title, motifs of first snow (obliteration) and last light (impending darkness) reverberate.
I must say that though the writing was beautiful and I was interested in the outcome, the novel felt a bit overwritten and moved very slowly at times. And I didn’t find much redemption in the ending–though surprising and clever, it left me feeling a bit bleak and wondering about the point of it all.