THE SOLDIER’S WIFE by Margaret Leroy

Book Quote:

“She takes pea pods from her vegetable rack and dumps them on the table. For a while there’s just the snap of the pods, and the neat, percussive sound of peas falling into bowls, and through her open door the scratch and bustle of chickens and the whisper of the countryside. A dark lacquer of sadness seems to spread across the room.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate В (JUN 28, 2011)

The quotation shows Margaret Leroy at her best, describing the ordinary routines of everyday life, in a strongly realized setting, and an acute emotional sensitivity. The place is Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands nestling off the French coast between the arms of Normandy and Brittany. The time is 1940, when the islands came under German occupation, after being more or less abandoned by the British as indefensible. The sadness comes from the fact that man of this little farm has been one of the few inhabitants killed in the bombing that preceded the invasion. One of the very few, actually, for as the title of the book that Leroy acknowledges in her introduction indicates (The Model Occupation by Madeleine Bunting), the German occupation of Guernsey was marked by civility on both sides and little effective resistance. I have never read a wartime story in which the brutal atrocities that have become a staple of WW2 fiction are largely (but not entirely) absent.

But that “not entirely” is significant; where does one draw the line between cooperation and collaboration? When must one raise one’s head and take a stand? It is a moral grey area that fascinated Leroy, who has re-imagined it in a consistently enjoyable romance novel, though sometimes her greys get a little rose-tinted. The misty period cover jacket showing a shapely woman of the 1940s looking into the sunset framed by exotic blooms absolutely screams Romance! Fortunately there is very little in the actual writing that is anything like as misty-eyed. It also made me think of the cover for Sadie Jones’ Small Wars, which had something of the same romance magazine air. An unfortunate comparison, however, for it reminded me that the Jones novel had a great deal more blood and grit than this one, without losing its feminine focus. I could have done with a bit more of that here. But having said that, I have said the worst; Leroy is a compelling writer and gives much to enjoy.

Leroy’s protagonist, Vivienne de la Mare, English by birth, is unhappily married to a Guernsey Islander. Now, while her husband is off with the army, she must look after her two daughters (Blanche and Millie, ten years apart) and her senile mother-in-law Evelyn. There are three main elements to the story. The first is the ordinary business of parenting: reading bedtime stories to the younger child, guiding the older one’s first forays into dating, fielding the criticisms of a demanding mother-in-law; Leroy handles all this with obvious understanding. The second is specific to the place and time, a curious cocktail of glamor and deprivation. This may well be Leroy’s strongest suit, as she captures both the style of the period and the beauty of the island’s leafy lanes and upland heaths, yet does not stint on the difficulty of making do under wartime conditions. Especially strong is her sense of community, and the way in which the inhabitants of nearby farms and homes rely on one another to get by. We have already seen some of this in my opening quotation; let me add to Vivienne’s description of the countryside near her home:

“I love that sense of going deep, of being enclosed. It’s like the way it feels when you follow the Guernsey lanes down here to our home, in this wet wooded valley of St. Pierre du Bois. The valley seems so safe and cloistered, like a womb. Then, if you walk on, you will go up, up, and out suddenly into the sunlight, where there are cornfields, kestrels, the shine of the sea. Like a birth.”

Then there is the third element, the wartime romance. The empty house next door to Vivienne’s is requisitioned by two German officers and their batmen. One of these, Captain Gunther Lehmann, an architect in civilian life, brings small presents to Vivienne; she refuses at first, but despite herself she falls in love. It is a beautiful oasis in the middle of war, answering a need in both of them, for Gunther is a man of peace trapped in a soldier’s uniform, and a passionate man in a loveless marriage. But of course strains do arrive which pull Vivienne’s loyalties and affections in different directions. Despite the model nature of the occupation as it affects people of her own nationality and class, she becomes aware of the more brutal aspects of the war and will ultimately be forced to make choices. Some of what happens at the end seemed a little implausible; this is, after all, a romance. But within its genre it is sensitive, richly textured, and consistently enjoyable.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 82 readers
PUBLISHER: Voice; Original edition (June 28, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Margaret Leroy
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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June 28, 2011 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  В· Posted in: Facing History, United Kingdom

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