How people act and react in times of adversity continues to be the prevailing theme of so much that I'm reading right now. Not by choice - well, not consciously by choice - but sometimes it just works out that way.
Knowing, from author friends, of the trials and tribulations of actually seeing a book through to publication, I can only applaud Libby Cone, who did this all by herself. Libby's excellent novel, War on the Margins, is self-published and doesn't have the benefit (or the budget) of a major publisher's marketing department behind it, so I am more than happy to try to push those sales figures up a little, if I can.
As regular visitors to this blog may recall, I rarely write about new books, but I'm so glad that I said "yes" when Libby offered to send me a copy. My curiosity was twofold: first, the subject matter - the lives of a group of people on Jersey during the German occupation of World War II- and, second, the fact that Libby's novel stemmed from a thesis for her Masters Degree in Jewish Studies at Gratz College, Philadelphia. In the introduction to War on the Margins, Libby Cone says that it was her advisor, Professor Joseph Davis, who had the foresight to suggest that she should go "beyond the usual nonfiction thesis". We can only give thanks that the postgraduate student took this advice.
No matter how much one learns about the evils and abominations of the Third Reich, there is always some new horror to discover. For example, reading about the slave workers in War on the Margins, made me realise that I knew far too little about the hellish Organisation Todt and what happened on the Channel Islands just over 60 years ago. Libby has skilfully woven elements of her research, such as the prison notes, poems and letters of Surrealist artist Claude Cahun (Lucille Schwob), into the fictional story of Marlene Zimmer, a quiet, self-effacing clerk and daughter of a Jewish father and Gentile mother, and Peter, the escaped Polish slave worker. Many of the chapters are prefaced by Nazi orders and edicts, which serve as a chilling reminder of how much intricate and detailed planning went into maintaining the nightmare of occupation.
For British readers, especially younger generations, War on the Margins brings home the fact that, half way through the twentieth century, the enemy truly was at our gate.
I suppose that the obvious way to follow War on the Margins is to read Mary Ann Shaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (Well, that's what my good friend M at Random Distractions suggested I should do and I think she was right.) So much has been written about this delightful book - sadly Ms Shaffer's only novel, published posthumously - that I'm not sure I can add anything new. Suffice it to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. A gentler read than War on the Margins, it still has great poignancy and, occasionally, the power to shock. Apart from one slightly spurious element introduced towards the end of the book, which didn't quite work for me (but I won't spoil the storyline for you), I can't fault it. It's definitely one of those books you will feel so much better for having read. And, sometimes, we all need one of those.
Finally, a small, quiet gem of a book (and you know how much I love those): Andreï Makine's The Woman Who Waited. Like Irène Némirovsky sixty years earlier, Makine left Russia for France, where he sought asylum in 1987, and writes in French.
Set in a remote village in the Archangel region of the Soviet Union's far north, in the pre-glasnost 1970s, The Woman Who Waited is the haunting, lyrical account of a young writer's growing obsession with Vera, an older woman, who has spent thirty years waiting for her soldier lover to return from the Second World War. Vera's tenderness and compassion never waver, even in the bleak, inhospitable chill of the far north. (Makine's descriptive prose is superb.)
A rare beauty, this book and, if it is typical of his work, I can quite see why Makine became the unprecedented winner of both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis.
I'm now off to spend a few days in another part of the country where snow has fallen for the first time in October for seventy years. Here on Exmoor, of course, it's just cold and wet. No change there then.