Category Archives: WWII

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky – Simon Mawer

Picking up The Girl Who Fell From the Sky last week – I had one of those ‘library love’ moments. Another reminder of the wonderfulness of libraries – I had been looking out for this novel since it was published in May and there it was – in a similar place to where I found Julia last week. For anybody in London who has access to an Ideas Store library – I can recommend taking a look.

This is the third of Mawer’s books I’ve read since discovering him this year; The Glass Room (loved it), Swimming to Ithaca (liked it quite a bit) and now The Girl Who Fell From the Sky which I loved. That is a simple summary but it is actually easy to do as the stories are all quite different. The are all set against a background of war or conflict but the style of each is unique – and all enjoyable to read.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is Marian, also known as Alice or Anne-Marie or Laurent. British and a fluent French speaker, this is the story of her recruitment,training and eventual mission in France as a Special Operations Executive during World War II. It is such a fun story to read with a straightforward narrative style. Marian is a likeable, gutsy character and by keeping control of the scope of the story, the author creates time to spend on the little details making Marian seem all the more authentic. I won’t write too much about her mission, Operation Trapeze, except to say it has all the danger and multi layered intrigue you might expect. This is a mission of such importance that nothing is off limits, including family bonds and personal relationships.

This is the simplest telling of the books I have read so far by Simon Mawer. The Glass Room was arty and haunting and there was a dual narrative in Swimming to Ithaca. Apart from the title which I didn’t especially like (fairly or not, it reminded me of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series), The Girl Who Fell From The Sky was my favourite of the books to read – if things like sleep and work hadn’t got in the way, I would have read it in one sitting.

Julia – Otto de Kat

I have a soft spot for translated books, slim books and books with a wartime setting. At 168 pages, Dutch author Otto de Kat’s Julia, ticked plenty of boxes. The copy I read was a brand new one from my library which was an added treat.

Julia is a story that is as elegant and sparse as its simple title suggests. Throughout there is a sense of regret and melancholy and by the end, real sadness.

In 1938, Chris Dudock is living and working in Lübeck Germany. He is Dutch, has a girlfriend and family business waiting for him back home. The rise of Nazi power is evident, beginning to infiltrate the daily life of the German people. Chris meets and falls in love with Julia, a vibrant and free spirited German engineer who isn’t afraid of speaking out against the regime. When her brother is arrested, she pleads with Chris to leave Germany, claiming he is putting her at risk by remaining. Chris makes the biggest mistake of his life and returns to Holland.

Fast forward many years and the mature Chris Dudok has done what was expected of him. He married and took over his father’s business. On the outside he has lived a reserved yet fairly ordinary life. On the inside, there has been real emptiness – he left part of himself behind in Lübeck all those years ago.

Light on detail, Julia is a book about living with loss and the impact that one decision had on Chris Dudock’s life. The narrative (always in the third person) flicks between 1938 and the present time (1980s) with snippets of the years in between. The mood of the book reminded me of Sandor Marai’s Embers and Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl – both intense stories on the subject of loss.

This story won’t be for everyone as it has a slow, reflective style rather than one with a lot of plot. I thought it was dignified and quite beautifully written. I read it as part of Iris on Books Dutch Literature Month. It looks as if it has been a popular choice.

Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke

2011, 168 pages

The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

I have just loved reading The Glass Room this week. It’s a book to be read slowly if possible although it’s tempting to rush ahead, the chapters are short, the writing elegant and understated as well as sensual, gripping and tragic.

Simon Mawer’s eighth novel was short listed for the Booker prize in 2009 – the winner being Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall. My thoughts after finishing The Glass Room are that Wolf Hall must be absolutely fantastic to have taken the prize. Not that I have any book judging credentials and of course it’s all subjective but I’m going to make the effort to read Wolf Hall to satisfy my curiosity. I have it on kindle but have been a bit intimidated by the size of it.

I first heard of The Glass Room with this excellent review by Tom at A Common Reader. I thought then that it sounded wonderful and it really is. So much so that I knew after the first couple of pages I would love it and so much so that I gave up trying to remember things to write about it later and just fell into reading it.

Set mostly in 1930’s Czechoslovakia, the Glass Room is the name of a house and the term is used loosely and is open to interpretation depending on the language used (Czech or German). There is nothing loose about the actual house and it is in fact the anchor for all that happens to its various inhabitants throughout the following years. It is the one constant in a time of upheaval and devastation in Czechoslovakia and throughout Europe, reflecting the changing times and attitudes of the people that pass through it.

Viktor and Liesel Landauer are honeymooning in Venice in 1929 when a chance meeting with a German architect results in a commission. He will build them their dream home, a forward thinking functionalist style building, without conventional walls, filled with glass and a stunning onyx wall. A house for the future; minimalist, free of ornament and association with the past. This house whilst ridiculed at first is soon claimed a masterpiece, the Glass Room becomes host to gatherings and recitals – the Launder’s are a wealthy family and for a time life seems good although times are changing.

Viktor is Jewish and eventually the Landauer’s are forced to flee their home, friends and family to seek exile abroad. They must leave their precious home to its fate and await their own. The fate of the characters, of their home, is such that by the end of the book it really does seem like many years have passed and much has changed.

Just a beautiful book on so many levels. There is a lot I have left out including some factual details about Mawer’s inspiration for The Glass Room and other crucial characters and details. Plenty to discover. As the saying goes ‘read it and weep’ – it had that effect on me.

2009, 404 pages

An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is an author I feel more familiar with than I probably should. I have watched Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go on film and am aware of his other books, but actually, An Artist of the Floating World is the first of his books I have properly read.

I am very taken with his direct, understated, elegant writing.

The year is 1948 and the artist of this story is Masuji Ono, a man trying to reconcile his past and present. His story is narrated in the first person and he tells it as if he is walking the reader around his city and his home – like a leisurely guided tour of his life. A tour that gradually develops a certain level of tension and discomfort. He speaks at the beginning of a bridge he needs to cross to get to his home, one of the grandest houses in the area, nestled up in the hills. This ‘Bridge of Hesitation’ is symbolic; there are other crossings he is trying to make; he has one foot, fond memories and his heart in the past, but a life and responsibilities, including a forward thinking daughter and grandson, in the present.

The past is pre war Japan, a time when he enjoyed an esteemed reputation as a painter and patriot; held in high regard by his students and community. A man with a good reputation and despite consistent claims that he was unconcerned about people’s opinions of him, it becomes obvious that this is not true. Masuji Ono is a man desperate to hold onto his version of the past. In trying to do this, a few inconsistencies start to creep into his recollections, a task for the reader is to decipher these – is he lying, is his memory failing, is he fooling himself? And if so, why. Does this dignified man have something to hide?

The present is Japan after ‘the surrender’ as he refers to it. His daily life is taken up with his two daughters and his highly entertaining and very Americanised eight year old grandson. The family are in the crucial phase of marriage negotiations for Ono’s youngest daughter, a time when it is customary to look into the background of the prospective bride and her family. There is unacknowledged anxiety around this process. Ono’s eldest daughter is indirect, polite and traditional in her communication style whilst his younger daughter is openly rude and dismissive.

Ono flicks back and forth in his narrative and cuts both an admirable and sad figure, there is a sense of loss on many levels and it is not easy to completely rely on him as a narrator.

He refers frequently to lighting – candles, lanterns, shadows, darkness, reflections – usually in describing a room or a place he is remembering from the past. While he is sensitive to that as a painter, it is also I think a way of linking his memories, of keeping them alive. He reminded me in this way of W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz who did the same thing with buildings and architecture. In both books the men also have the same sense of displacement and terrible loss – different countries, different circumstances – but the same war.

The Observer newspaper described An Artist of the Floating World as an exquisite novel – I thought so too.

1986, 206 pages

All the Nice Girls – Joan Bakewell

I almost did one of those embarrasing whoops of joy last week when I spotted this book at the library near work. It’s been on my radar for a couple of years now ever since seeing an interview with Joan Bakewell and thinking how fascinating she was. For those who like me don’t know of Bakewell, she is an English journalist and tv presenter, well known in the 1960s and beyond – beautiful, intelligent and not afraid to report on controversial topics – sounds like the perfect heroine for a story doesn’t it?

Unfortunately I think this might be one of those times when the author appeals more than the actual story.

All The Nice Girls is set in 1942 in a fictional English town near Liverpool. It is the story of a girls school who take part in the community initiative to “adopt” a naval warship, meet some of the crew and correspond with them while they are at sea. This was based on a factual scheme that Bakewell herself took part in when she was at school. 1942 wasn’t a good year for the Allies and as well as boosting morale, the scheme was designed primarity to raise funds for the war effort (the communities and schools were assigned a particular ship dependant on the money they had saved and raised).

Inevitably bonds are formed and secret liaisons arranged. In the present day, 60 year old Millie contemplates the relationship she has with her daughter whilst exploring old papers left behind by her recently deceased mother.

The strengths of the book for me were the character of Cynthia Maitland, the unstereotypical headmistress of the school and the picture Joan Bakewell paints of wartime Britain. Little points she makes such as none of the girls wanting to learn German, to the married women going back to their single lifestyles with the men away – helped to set the scene well. In fact, the whole issue of women’s roles during the war is subtly addressed throughout the book.

The weakness for me was the current day story – it was vague and I didn’t feel anything for the characters at all. It was obvious there would be a link between the two time periods but I was only mildly curious as to what that was.

It was an easy read, some parts were nicely done but for me a bit light. Opinion on the book seems to be split, I have read some glowing reviews and some that are more lukewarm.

So what next? I haven’t finished with Joan Bakewell yet – definitely interested to read her autobiography The Centre of the Bed. She has a new novel She’s Leaving Home due out soon, set in 1950’s and 1960’s London – again a time period I’m interested in so I might give this a try.

2009, 352 pages

Gilgamesh – Joan London

I’m not sure why I chose this book from the library at the weekend. I hadn’t heard of the title or this Australian author before and the cover isn’t especially captivating but I’m so glad I did. The first thing I have done on finishing it is to add Joan London’s second novel The Good Parents to my wish list.

Gilgamesh is such a lovely book, gentle undramatic writing about events that are anything but. It is essentially the story of a young mother Edith and her baby son Jim, starting out in 1930s Australia, travelling under challenging pre war conditions to Armenia, in search of the boy’s father and their place in the world. As they travel to far away and exotic places, meeting various and at times slightly magical characters, their search mirrors that of countless others who have travelled before them, companions of one sort or another answering the call to travel and find their ‘home’. These travels also reflect those of Gilgamesh, the character of the world’s oldest known poem who had all material riches but travelled the world in search of immortality. Edith’s cousin Leopold carries this poem with him everywhere and it is Leopold and his friend Aram’s visit from London early on in the story that sets off the chain of events that follow. The history of the characters, their families, their homelands are acknowledged throughout and this was something I loved about the book.

The last third of the book was a little meandering at times. It didn’t quite take the direction I was hoping and I was preparing to be a little disappointed. But the ending was completely right and in keeping with the spirit of the story.

Just lovely.

2001, 272 pages

The Postmistress – Sarah Blake

The Postmistress takes place in wartime London and in Franklin, a small town in Massachusetts. The year is 1940, America is yet to join the war and London is under nightly seige from German bombers.

Frankie is an American reporter in London, broadcasting back to America on the horrors of the blitz, desperate to make her compatriots care and want to do something to help. Listening to her daily on the radio are the people of Franklin; including Dr Will Fitch and his new wife Emma, and Iris, the postmistress. The story centres around these characters, their separate and connected lives and the effects of war.

As the postmistress, Iris is the anchor of the community. Every letter passes through her hands and she considers it her duty to ensure order is maintained and the information is dispersed correctly. This becomes even more important as the community gradually becomes involved in the war.

The information that people have access to and what they choose to do with it is an important part of the story and a question asked of the reader as well I thought – is ignorance bliss? What responsibility do we have to not turn a blind eye and when is it kinder to leave well alone?

The story is not without its traumatic scenes but even so I would describe it as a pleasant read – I struggled a little to really get into it which was a shame. It was nice to read but from the title and the blurb on the back I was hoping to be totally engrossed – that didn’t quite happen unfortunately.

The Postmistress is on Richard and Judy’s current bookclub choices – I look forward to other people’s thoughts on it.

2010, 336 pages