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.
“We live our lives on a whole planet, seeing and learning and going from place to place. But eventually there arrives a time for each of us, when our world becomes smaller: one house, one floor of that house, and near the end, one room, one little room to which our whole gigantic life has been reduced. And when that happens . . . that room becomes sacred. It is the holy, modest place in which we will perform perhaps the hardest task of our life: letting it go.”
This is a story of courage, compassion, and redemption. Deborah Birch, a seasoned hospice nurse has a difficult new patient. And when Nurse Birch is off duty she is not able to get much rest because her husband is suffering from nightmares, anxiety, and rage.
The author weaves together three different threads in this novel: death/dying, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Pearl Harbour. There are two alternating story lines, one about the Pacific in WW 2, and the other about a hospice care nurse caring for a patient and supporting her husband who just returned from his last deployment. The author crafts a gentle yet compelling story that is easy to read and beautifully written. I will definitely be reading more by this author who is a graduate of the acclaimed University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop and has won many awards for his writing. His latest novel which came out earlier this year is called The Baker’s Secret which is about D-Day from the French perspective. And another one that looks good is The Curiosity which is a thriller about a man frozen in the Arctic for more than a century, who wakes up in the present day.
Kiernan’s writing has a ‘fresh’ feel to me and I really enjoyed it. The season I read it in was especially poignant for me because my sister was dying and I began reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It was meaningful to view the perspective of navigating the decline of old age that Gawande brings and comforting to experience the compassionate care of the hospice nurse in the novel at the same time. Hospice care is such amazing work and I gained even more respect for it in reading this book.