Paperback review: From Friendship by Emily Gould to Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead

Also The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith, The Woman in the Picture by Katharine McMahon and National Service: A Generation in Uniform 1945-1963 by Richard Vinen

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The Independent Culture

Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead - Vintage, £9.99

****

There are untouchable stories from the Second World War, untouchable heroes and heroines whose bravery we’re simply not allowed to question. But sometimes we must question, and it’s that very principle that Moorehead upholds in this history about the villages set high up in the mountains of Vivarais-Lignon. The story is that they hid and saved the lives of some 5,000 Jews, all without heed to their own safety.

Moorehead doesn’t dispute that without the bravery of several individuals such as nurse Madeleine Barot, many more people,  mainly children, would have been slaughtered in the gas chambers. But she is pressing on a sore: the reminder that the Catholic Church in France, along with so many of its citizens, did nothing to help Jews when the Nazis rolled into the country. As she shows, many people preferred the conservative laws the Nazis introduced, and they didn’t help until it became clear that Jews weren’t being repatriated to Poland but murdered instead.

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This really is a story of the children, though. She estimates that about 800, not 5000, people were saved, but so many were orphaned children. Their stories were often heart-breaking, like that of Jacques Stulmacher and his brother Marcel, who were unlucky to be housed with an uncaring couple, and who remembered only being constantly hungry. Little Jacques Liwerant kept soiling the bed to the extent that his brother beat him to make him stop so that they wouldn’t be sent away.

The focus on such individual children is what we need to understand even in a small way what happens when people are forced to flee for their lives. Life in the mountains was often hard, religiously prescribed by Christians for Jewish children who didn’t understand the new rules, but it was a refuge and even the local police combined to help people get away. As always, the truth is never so simple.  

The Woman in the Picture by Katharine McMahon - W&N, £8.99

***

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McMahon’s tale of the 1920s lawyer Evie Gifford packs in a great deal about battered wives, corrupt upper-class husbands, thwarted love affairs and the aftermath of the Great War, an event still impinging on people’s lives, and it moves at a firm but speedy pace. It’s not trying to be a different kind of book, but there are some glimpses of the book it might have been: Evie’s mother trying to pull her daughter back into the home as so many women did between the wars; the too-close relationship between Evie and her dead brother’s lover, Meredith, which almost spills over into something else; the warning about the depression to come in increasing strikes and the desperate attempts of the labour movement. As it is, more emphasis is placed on the trial of the battered wife, whose outcome is a little predictable, and Evie’s own romance also plays a rather safe and predictable hand. McMahon is a highly adept and imaginative writer but this novel definitely skirts the meaty areas, when it could have plunged into them with real relish.  

The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith - Press, £7.99

****

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Smith’s debut novel is a suitably shifting, misty-landscaped tale set at the end of the 18th century in recently independent America. It’s hard to know how people thought and felt so long ago and in circumstances we can barely grasp, and it’s as though Smith is making a concession to that fact, with her narrative focus moving from John, once a pirate and now a soldier, and his sickly nine-year-old daughter Tabitha on board ship, to the past with slave girl Moll who grew up alongside John’s unusual wife Helen. The power relations between all the characters are constantly shifting about, too: Moll and Helen are forced into a mutual dependency when they are small girls, but Moll often hits back when Helen goes too far in her bossiness or teasing. Helen’s father, Asa, who loses his wife, daughter and grand-daughter seeks forgiveness for past sins but can never rest, his own soul restless as the story. It’s an often remarkable strategy that only occasionally frustrates when it has to snip at a narrative strand just as it’s hooking us. 

National Service: A Generation in Uniform 1945-1963 by Richard Vinen - Allen Lane, £10.99

*****

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Vinen wonders fruitfully why so few novels, plays, histories and so on have featured National Service as a subject and draws conclusions about class and a rather disturbing national sense of embarrassment about it. The figures tell us so much about the make-up of the men who had to serve: seven per cent of recruits to the army, for instance, came from homes where there were 2 or 3 people for every room. Vinen also shows, though, how many young men responded to a male-dominated environment after the war, when so many came from homes where fathers were absent, having been killed during fighting. Widows were naturally reluctant to let their sons do national service, where they might also lose their lives. Interestingly, Neal Ascherson says he didn’t talk to his father about his experiences doing national service in Malaya, but he did tell his mother “some of the more horrific things which weighed on my conscience.” The mixture here of personal anecdote, some social theory, and official statistics, make this an often surprising, and always revealing and rewarding, read.

Friendship by Emily Gould - Virago, £8.99

***

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Gould’s debut just about scrapes three stars as it’s not nearly as sharp as it needs to be. Her leading characters Bev and Amy are pleasant enough: likeable, both in career doldrums just as they hit 30, with a couple of bombshells on the way to make them grow up, such as unplanned pregnancy. Gould does tentatively question what makes women want to be friends with one another and there are comparisons with sexual relationships (Bev is the one who “chased” Amy, the way one might do for a date). But to rescue it from fluff there has to be a harder edge and a sense of something much, much deeper. It may be unfair to compare it to Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, but it’s firmly in that tradition, and doesn’t add nearly as much to the genre as it should.

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