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.
After the enormous success of her earlier book Sarah’s Key, and the subsequent movie hit, I must say I was a little disappointed with her second novel. Although the story is interesting enough and definitely kept my attention, the secret was not kept well enough because I had it figured out very early on, and I did not find it as shocking as the author seems to think.
Set in France, a brother surprises his sister with a nostalgia visit to an island they used to vacation on as children. Revisiting this setting unleashes a troublesome memory which distracts the sister enough while driving to cause a serious car accident. The tragedy sets off a series of events which become revealing in a number of different ways. The story focuses on love, family, and the power memory holds on our lives. It explores various relationships and how we view our past and people like our parents.
The setting of the story is unique and makes me want to go there. Le Gois is a causeway leading to the island of Noirmoutier. The passage has limited access because it becomes covered by the tides, rendering it a dangerous crossing and regularly impossible. It becomes a powerful symbol in the book.
What a lovely escape into rural France. And for crime fiction, even the brutal murder and subsequent investigation seems muted and gentled by the rolling hills, the mellow wine, and the rich and tasty food. But make no mistake. This is an intelligent novel, well written and full of political and historical reality and unafraid to deal with difficult issues.
Bruno is a village policeman, well versed with the ways of his sleepy but robust little town, from the markets to the vineyards. He has a basset hound, makes his own wine, grows his own vegetables, and teaches five year olds tennis. That way he not only participates in community service, but knows the characters of the boys when they become troublesome teenagers. Here’s a quote about Bruno from Walker’s website. “Bruno handles cases with great discretion, circulating so quietly and tactfully among his neighbours that his interviews are more like friendly visits; it’s a wonderful detection method and even cannier literary strategy, allowing Walker to pursue the plot of his mystery while beguiling the reader with extended scenes of village market days, old-fashioned wine harvests, etc.”
Martin Walker comes to his novel writing with an impressive list of credentials. He is an Oxford scholar, accomplished in journalism, European history, politics, international relations, and economics. He owns a basset hound, just like his character Bruno, and a house in the Dordogne region of France. This is the first in his Bruno series and he has written other books as well. His website is worth looking at. I’m sure I’ll be making an armchair visit to France and this Bruno series again!
Martin Walker Website