Books: By parachute into the heart of Vichy

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
It would take a mile-long essay to do justice to the many virtues of Sebastian Faulks's wonderful new novel. This riveting account of a young Scotswoman's odyssey through wartime London, and on into a perilous secret mission in Vichy France, deserves the highest praise. The eponymous heroine is both simple and subtle, and her troubled love for the missing airman, Peter Gregory, the central thread of this Proust-influenced novel, is done with a gentle finesse which puts Faulks straight into the distinguished company of early Elizabeth Bowen and the young Rosamond Lehmann.

Just before she is recruited into the shadowy G Section and given training in how to be a secret agent, Charlotte meets Peter at a party. She falls for him without a struggle but his initial resistance and the subsequent ups and downs of their love together and love in separation, are done with an admirable delicacy and chaste restraint surely unique in any contemporary British male writer under 60.

"Compassion, longing, gentleness, a wish to lose herself in him, to purge the conflicts of her life in the solution of his troubled weariness... These seemed to be aspects of what she felt, though she experienced them not as separate factors but as a single precipitous anguish."

Faulks is a fine "feminine" novelist in other respects. Like Mollie Keane, he is excellent at describing the interiors of both spacious mansions and untidy flats, and the minute details of women's clothes and make-up; he is also brilliant at evoking the guileless partying and light banter of young Londoners living in troubled times.

Once we have Charlotte parachuted into Vichy France, the novel is all tension and page-turning. In the small town of Lavaurette, Charlotte soon becomes involved with a reckless but courageous architect, Julien Levade, who has saved two little Jewish boys from the clutches of the collaborationist gendarmes. As well as evoking the courage and heroism of ordinary French farmers or ordinary British airmen, Faulks shows the horrendous complicity and endemic anti-Semitism of a great many ordinary French citizens. One of the most heart-rending scenes in the book is where the French police in charge of Drancy concentration camp bundle all the Jewish children, including Julien's two orphans, into the bus that starts their journey to the gas chambers.

Faulks knows how to conjure up a character with a zestful pen portrait. The loathsome Vichy Jewish Affairs bureaucrat, Pichon, is not only given an incisive physical presence but his chilling legalistic dialogue is done to perfection. Perhaps the very best characterisation is reserved for Levade's father, a reclusive old painter, "three quarters" Jewish, who paradoxically is a fervent, devotional Christian. As he is carted off from Lavaurette to Drancy, he writes separate letters to his son and to Charlotte. The one to his son reflects the depths of his hard-won spirituality and makes a poignant fictional counterpoint to the condition of the fatherless Jewish boys.

"In what a father feels for his son there is much stern hope, but so much tenderness that I cannot describe it to you now. If you have sons of your own you must hold them while they're young."

The Proustian cogitations are threaded into the novel via Charlotte's memories of holidaying and studying in France as a Thirties schoolgirl. There is a borderline artificiality in this but, overall, the metaphysical and aesthetic basis of the novel is modestly understated. Indeed, the novel would have been an all-round masterpiece had Faulks's editors obliged him to do a bit more work at two or three important junctures. Both the scene where the Jewish lads are taken from their second refuge and the section where Charlotte abruptly decides to stay undercover in France, are done far too cursorily, given the dramatic weight they have to bear. More seriously, the first 20 pages are the most inert and least impressive in the book. Not only is the description of Gregory's flight in the Hurricane wooden, but the scene on the train in which Cannerley does his covert recruitment is as stiff as any old B-movie.

"He began by introducing himself. 'Richard Cannerley. But my friends, like Morris here, all call me Dick.'

'Charlotte Gray,' she conceded, briefly shaking his proffered hand."

And more of the same. Sebastian Faulks has such a gift for narrative that it is little short of criminal that his publishers allowed this beautiful near-masterpiece to falter so badly at the start.