In his 1996 novel, Birdsong
, Sebastian Faulks showed himself to be a superb anatomist of men--and, just as importantly, women--at war. Indeed, his depiction of trench combat during World War I was almost painfully vivid: the equivalent of Wilfred Owen in prose, minus the lingering idealism. Now the author shifts his focus to the next
global conflict in Charlotte Gray
. This time the year is 1942, when "England was blacked out and afraid." The 25-year-old heroine has just traveled down from Edinburgh to London, hoping to make some contribution to the war effort. In short order she falls in love with a British pilot, mourns his disappearance and apparent death in France, and follows him across the Channel to assist the nascent French Resistance.
On the face of it, these are the ingredients of a historical potboiler. But Faulks is such a gifted storyteller that we seldom notice the threadbare nature of the raw material. Instead, all but the most churlish reader will be drawn into Charlotte's tribulations, which are not merely geopolitical but amorous: "The last thing she needed was some uncontrolled romance. She wanted to be helpful, she wanted to lead a serious life, not to lie sobbing in her bed for a disembodied yearning. Still less did she wish to see it embodied, with the complication and the fear that all that would entail." (Note: Charlotte is that rare thing, a virginal heroine, at least until page 61.) What's more, the author's evocation of Occupied France is a triumph of grimy, monochromatic realism. Here the small triumphs of Charlotte and her circle are expertly offset by the larger tragedies of what we've come to call, with only middling accuracy, the Good War. --William Davies
From Publishers Weekly
Readers of the bestseller Birdsong may hope that Faulks's third novel will furnish another mesmerizing narrative with a piercing love story and the kinds of details that vitalized his descriptions of life in the trenches during WWII. Although this novel does not, sadly, equal its predecessor in terms of seductive readability, its setting in occupied France during WWII and its depiction of the sentiments that motivated many Frenchmen to identify emotionally with the Germans rather than their longtime foe, Britain, grants the story intrinsic interest. But Faulks falters when he asks us to believe that pragmatic young Scotswoman Charlotte Gray is so transformed by her love for RAF airman Peter Gregory that she determines to parachute into France to find him after he disappears on a mission somewhere in the Free Zone. Disguising her motivation, she volunteers for the government's secret G-Section, where her uncanny talent for memorizing documents, her nerves of steel and her equanimity when parachuting into Occupied France after scant training may leave readers incredulous. Even more problematic is Charlotte's sense of transcendent mission, her mystical feeling, stressed again and again, that she has received "a call" to find Peter, and that her work for the Resistance is a "compelling urgency of personal and moral force" that will "change my life.. save my soul... and save [France's] soul as well." In evoking the mood and atmosphere of 1942-1943 France, however, Faulks provides the nuanced detail that invests the novel with authenticity, irony and pathos. Charlotte's dangerous maneuvers as she meets Resistance members and integrates herself into the village of Lavaurette, and the alternating chapters that reveal Peter's predicament, are genuinely absorbing. When Faulks introduces two small Jewish boys who are left behind in the village when their parents are deported, their heartrending situation adds tension. Yet Faulks undermines these effective scenes with a plot device that fizzles: veiled hints about Charlotte's "betrayal and violation" by her father when she was a child. Despite the psychological inconsistencies, however, in the end, it is the convincing settings?the wartime London singles scene, the old boy spy network, and daily life in an ideologically and politically divided France?that shape dramatic immediacy.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.