Monthly Archives: September 2011

Resistance heroine who led 7,000 men against the Nazis

John Lichfield pays tribute to Nancy Wake, the Second World War’s most decorated woman and one of the models for Sebastian Faulks’ fictional heroine, Charlotte Gray

Nancy Wake“Ms Wake, who has died in London just before her 99th birthday, was a New Zealander brought up in Australia. She became a nurse, a journalist who interviewed Adolf Hitler, a wealthy French socialite, a British agent and a French resistance leader. She led 7,000 guerrilla fighters in battles against the Nazis in the northern Auvergne, just before the D-Day landings in 1944. On one occasion, she strangled an SS sentry with her bare hands. On another, she cycled 500 miles to replace lost codes. In June 1944, she led her fighters in an attack on the Gestapo headquarters at Montlucon in central France.

This courageous and resourceful woman reminds us what unforeseen abilities may lie dormant in us all, awaiting extraordinary times to bring them to light.”

From The Independent, 9 August 2011

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Charlotte Gray

“Memory is the only thing that binds you to earlier selves; for the rest, you become an entirely different being every decade or so, sloughing off the old persona, renewing and moving on. You are not who you were, he told her, nor who you will be.”

-Charlotte Gray

Charlotte Gray book cover

Despite previously complaining that the writing of Sebastian Faulks fails to set me alight, I couldn’t resist trying one more novel- the subject matter was too tempting to turn away.

This is the last of Faulks’s French trilogy, following The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Birdsong. Faulks describes it as the most inward-looking of the three books, dealing with themes of memory and loss. The main character’s search for her missing lover, an RAF pilot, in occupied France is set against an uncompromising portrayal of French political life under the German occupation, including French co-operation in the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. Despite its harrowing subject matter, it has proved one of Faulks’s most popular novels, remains his best seller in hardback and has sold more than a million copies overall in the United Kingdom (as cited on Faulks’ own webpage).

I struggled to get into the book, and nearly gave up on it after the first 20 pages, but I slowly started to get my hooks into it once Charlotte landed on the other side of the channel.  As the novel escalated to its conclusion, it increasingly invoked tension

and page-turning suspense.

In the small, fictious town of Lavaurette, Charlotte becomes involved with a reckless but courageous architect, Julien Levade, who has saved two little Jewish boys from the clutches of the collaborationist gendarmes. One of the most heart-rending scenes in the book unfolds when the French police in charge of Drancy concentration camp bundle all the Jewish children, including Julien’s two orphans, into the bus that starts their journey to the gas chambers.

Although this book would never make a ‘desert island’ list for me, it is the best Faulks book that I’ve read so far. It was useful to spend some time thinking about the situation in France and helped me connect the importance of North Africa (i.e. its proximity to free France and the Vichy government).

Novelists are masters of the imagination. And Faulks is beyond doubt a master.’
Brian Martin, Financial Times

Read an extract