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Books: Back on the Front Line

3 minute read
John Skow

In six pages of spare description at the outset of the somewhat old-fashioned romantic adventure Charlotte Gray (Random House; 399 pages; $24.95), novelist Sebastian Faulks makes a promise that somewhat old-fashioned readers expect and understand. The brief opening scene takes a Spitfire pilot over Nazi-occupied France on a lone mission and brings him back to his British home field, his fragile plane’s tail controls damaged by antiaircraft fire. He makes a ragged landing and climbs out of the cockpit, shaking. A mechanic asks, “How was it, Greg?” He answers, “It was cold.”

The promise made and understood here is, of course, that the reader is in the hands of a fine storyteller, whose tale, after many turnings, will end as it should. The turnings are traditional. The title figure, a beautiful, not very experienced young Scotswoman, arrives in London to work in the war effort. She and the pilot, Peter Gregory, meet and have a brief, rather restrained romance. Then he disappears on a flight to provision a Resistance group.

Charlotte follows. She is fluent in French, and she volunteers to carry instructions to another part of the shifting, uncertain Resistance web. She does not find Greg, and when the time comes for her nighttime escape flight from a grass field lit by flares, she stays.

In Birdsong, a brilliant, bleak earlier novel, also to some extent a romance, Faulks wrote of sappers tunneling under trenches in World War I, listening for opposing tunnelers, waiting to be blown up and buried under yards of mud. The new novel is not so bloody, but like Birdsong it evokes vividly the erosion of nerve worked by fear, hunger, illness and the dimming of peaceful life to an unconvincing, half-remembered fantasy.

Charlotte takes a job as housekeeper to a moody old French artist, invents an absent husband for protection, tumbles into confused, despairing sex with a local resistance operative, and tries to stay clear of the murky vectors of mistrust and betrayal among the factions that threaten the tangled Resistance apparatus. Manages to keep her sandy hair dyed black. Chokes back hopelessness when two Jewish children she has been helping to protect are taken by Nazis.

The adventures are Charlotte’s, not Greg’s, but wounded, with a bad leg and bad French, he makes his way to safety. In Marseilles a friendly garage owner says, “There was a woman looking for you. In the summer.”

“What?”

“An Englishwoman.”

“Did she leave a message?”

“No.”

Eventually, since this is a romantic imagining, Charlotte makes her way back to Scotland. And the phone rings. A voice says, “Charlotte, you may not remember me… ” So the story ends as it should, though with both lovers so battered by the war and their time apart that only the most resolute cynic could cry “Mush alert!” and truly mean it.

–By John Skow

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