Selling your soul for the butter

Island Madness by Tim Binding Picador pounds 15.99

For the tourist today, the underground hospital on the Channel Island of Guernsey makes a handy diversion. Open the curtains of your guest house to find it's raining outside, and for a moment wonder what on earth you can do with the children. And then, you remember: you can go and see the work of the slave labourers! Take a trip into the past! Wonder at the lives spent during the Second World War, digging deep into Guernsey's rock!

Tim Binding has dug deep in this haunting novel about an island under occupation, laying bare the secrets of collaboration. It reveals the Channel Islanders as all too ready to rub shoulders with their German occupiers, and all too human in their efforts to survive.

The tourist trap of today was the most terrible of places during the Nazis' stay on Guernsey. The underground hospital built by prisoners during the Second World War was a place of horror where lives were lost, and people dehumanised. Binding shows how the islanders, struggling on meagre rations, and learning to live with the occupying forces, have little time for the prisoners. Rather than engage their sympathy, the ragged, despondent slave workers are feared as criminals, potential thieves, and killers. Construction of the hospital offers golden opportunities to the islanders: businessmen like Mr van Dielen provide supplies to the project.

Van Dielen and his daughter, Isobel, are typical of the island's middle classes. They fraternise with officers, enjoying the usual distractions of the bourgeois life: cocktail parties, horse-riding, dinners, trips to the theatre, and sex. Isobel, as Mrs Hallivand puts it so memorably, was "just an ordinary girl who unfortunately saw no difference between a German uniform and a Henley blazer".

Elsewhere in Europe, the pounding of the Nazi jackboot echoes through bombed city centres. In Russia, the tide of war appears to be turning, with 145,000 Germans killed. On Guernsey, however, there is little hint of the terrors felt elsewhere.

The insidious corruption of collaboration spreads throughout the island. Binding has written a superb evocation of how it blights the soul in all its degrees. A man in uniform is hard to resist, and the bored women of the island have never had it so good. There are dances, and drives in fast cars; pleasures of the flesh and goods that would otherwise be rationed. Those who began their war by making small talk with Nazi officers at drink parties, end it by sleeping with the enemy. The men, too, are not unaffected. As Albert, willing to serve the Nazis for a living, yet still filled with an implacable hatred for them, sees it, those he has known all his life, are "choking before his very eyes in a sea of greed and suspicion".

When Isobel van Dielen is found murdered the atmosphere is changed for good: the idyll cannot hold. The magic of the picturesque island turns to madness and true strength of character is revealed, often in the most unlikely people.

Binding captures the essence of life under occupation with fine description of character and a taut plot. The strain that makes a law-abiding, conventional mother scream, "I'd sell my soul for a pound of butter", is vividly conveyed here. There are heart-stopping twists and turns in the way in which people behave and react. The woman who is most free with her body, for instance, is not an amoral character but the most moral, for she is also the most free with her kindness.

The deft tugging of our heartstrings continues with Binding's portrayals of Nazi officers. While the majority live up to all our cliched expectations - they are cruel, sinister, loathsome, insane - one individual does not, but instead keeps surprising us to the end. At first unwillingly, then enthusiastically, the reader cheers him on, discovering the person beneath the uniform. This is high-class fiction: tense, compassionate, surprising and moving.

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