Charlotte Gray: A Novel

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It is 1942, London is blacked out, but France is under a greater darkness, as the occupying Nazi forces encroach ever closer in a tense waiting game. Charlotte Gray, a volatile but determined young woman, travels south from Edinburgh. Working in London, she has a brief but intense love affair with an RAF pilot. When his plane is lost over France, she contrives to go there herself to work in the Resistance and to search for him - but then is unwilling to leave as she finds that the struggle for the country's fate ...
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Set in England and France during the darkest days of WWII, this novel, like the author's previous work, Birdsong, depicts a complex love affair that is both shaped and thwarted ... by war as it fathoms and explores a time of lostparadises. 399p. Read more Show Less

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Overview

It is 1942, London is blacked out, but France is under a greater darkness, as the occupying Nazi forces encroach ever closer in a tense waiting game. Charlotte Gray, a volatile but determined young woman, travels south from Edinburgh. Working in London, she has a brief but intense love affair with an RAF pilot. When his plane is lost over France, she contrives to go there herself to work in the Resistance and to search for him - but then is unwilling to leave as she finds that the struggle for the country's fate is intimately linked to her own battle to take control of her life. Faulks's novel is an examination of lost paradises, politics without belief, the limits of memory, the redemptive power of art and the existence of hope beyond reason. It is also a brilliant evocation of life in Occupied France and, more significantly, a revelation of the apalling price many Frenchmen paid to survive in unoccupied, so-called Free France. As the men, women and children of Charlotte's small town prepare to meet their terrible destiny, the truth of what took place in wartime France is finally exposed.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Life During Wartime

One of the things said to characterize postmodernity is the attenuation of historical awareness. As Eric Hobsbawm, doyen of modern European history, noted in his account of "the Short Twentieth Century," the period from 1914 to 1991, "Most young men and women at the century's end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in." Such a situation, Hobsbawm argued, makes the work of historians particularly essential. It may also explain the prodigious revival of the historical novel, especially in Hobsbawm's native Britain, over the last decade or so. It would seem that many of Britain's brightest novelists — the likes of Pat Barker, Beryl Bainbridge, and Sebastian Faulks — are loath to let the historians do their work alone. Theirs are not postmodern historical novels, casting doubt on the very possibility of knowing, and representing, the past. "Although this is a work of fiction, I have tried to represent the historical background as it actually was," Sebastian Faulks writes in a note to his fine new novel, Charlotte Gray. So much for the sparkling amnesia of postmodern times.

Faulks is best known in the United States for Birdsong, his acclaimed World War I novel. Now in Charlotte Gray he has taken as his subject the dark heart of the Short 20th Century — World War Two — and in particular the black year of 1942, before Germany had yet begun to lose the war. Charlotte Gray sounds like the title of a 19th-century novel, and its heroine is ayoungwoman who — like George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke or Henry James' Isabel Archer — draws everyone to her by virtue of her radiant if fragile promise. Charlotte is passionate, mercurial, intelligent — and aloof, as yet, to life. She puts people in mind of life's potential, a quality that in wartime is everywhere stunted and maimed. Describing a war in which a single battle — like that of Stalingrad — can cost a million lives, it is always risky to pick from out of the unreckonable quantum of suffering any protagonist at all. But in creating Charlotte, Faulks has chosen wisely. Without the novel's departing from its fastidious, chastely lyrical realism, Charlotte is permitted to indicate something beyond herself.

In the winter of 1942, Charlotte leaves her home in Edinburgh (she is Scottish, as she likes to insist, not English) for London, wanting to do something, she is not sure quite what, for the war effort. She happens to meet on the train a man named Dick Cannerly, who will later put her in touch with something called G Section, a shadowy British organization devoted to fomenting and assisting the Resistance in Vichy France. Such an encounter proves typical of Faulks's genius for plot and his generosity with his characters; we are hardly permitted to meet anyone in Charlotte Gray who does not turn out to have an important role to play, and a sense of whose three dimensions isn't given. Dick Cannerly is first made to appear a bit of a womanizer, and so he is; but we also come to know — knowing him only as well as a dozen or more other characters — his good humor, his devotion to the war effort, and his grief for his dying father. Perhaps one should not write about the age of total war without such a vivid sense of the importance of everyone, but everyone.

In London Charlotte attends a pretentious literary party and finds herself dancing with a RAF pilot named Peter Gregory. Before long she also finds herself in love, for the first time, with this kind, damaged veteran of the Battle of Britain. She has hardly conceived of her wild hope that she and Gregory can be each other's redemption before Gregory — run out it seems of his "devil's luck" — goes down in a new mission over France. Presently an interview with Mr. Jackson of G Section provides Charlotte herself the opportunity to go, with her almost immaculate French, to France as a courier. This is her official mission; her secret, quixotic one is to find Peter Gregory. The love affair between Charlotte and Gregory serves as the longest span in Faulks's architecture of plot; only on the novel's last pages do we learn its fate. Under and within it are conducted several important friendships between Charlotte and her French comrades. Her relationship with a Monsieur Levade and his son Julien, and their tragic relationship one to the other, forms the core of the novel, and crucially complicates and deepens Charlotte's sense of things.

In this way, as in several others, Charlotte Gray is a high-wire act — a brilliant performance perpetually on the brink of a tragic misstep. How could a jejune love story, even set against a world-historical backdrop, deserve my attention for almost 400 pages, I wondered, and then began to see Charlotte mature. Indeed even until I had reached the end of the novel I feared Faulks might fail me yet: Hadn't he forgotten about Julien Levade? And wasn't he introducing an element of the TV talk show into his description of Charlotte's relationship with her father? The answers are no, and no.

What Charlotte Gray badly wants, besides Peter Gregory, is to make "a continuous line through her life," in particular to rescue her miscarried relationship with her father and to redeem her adolescent sense of la belle France. Many historians have seen the two World Wars as a kind of Thirty Years War, with the period of the entre deux guerres as a respite, not a peace. It is not until Charlotte has fought her own war that she is finally capable of reconciliation with her father, an officer in World War I permanently disturbed by the experience. Their having fought, in a sense, the same war, allows understanding at last to take place between father and daughter, and implies a future too. The tragic counterpoint of the Levades' father-child relationship prevents this from giving too optimistic a gloss on things, but when Gregory looks on Charlotte again and sees "a power of acquired self-knowledge that had steadied her eyes' once prodigally sensitive and unsettled gaze," the change is almost literally visible to the reader as well.

Literature may not be capable of drawing "a continuous line" between our lives and the lives, and outrageously many deaths, of more than 50 years ago, but Charlotte Gray could hardly seem more quick with life, or more affecting. Some readers may read it without tears; few will read it without gratitude. Suspenseful, detailed, and boundlessly humane, it is, as a historical novel, at once retro and state-of-the-art.

Financial Times
Faulks is beyond a doubt a master.
Richard Bernstein
It is a love story and a spy story and a story about historical injury as well as a story about the Holocaust, the politics of Vichy, and the particulars of the infamous camp at Drancy...[T]hanks to the complex, enchanting vehicle of Charlotte and Mr. Faulk's grasp of political and moral history, he manages to make it work.
New York Times
Sunday Telegraph
One of the most impressive novelists of our generation...who is growing in authority with every book.
Daily Express (London)
A worthy successor to Birdsong. In Charlotte, Faulks has created a wonderfully complex and engaging heroine, whith whom it is hard not to fall a little in love.
Library Journal
A Scottish lass tracks her lost RAF lover in France. Faulks's Birdsong was big.
Anita Gates
...[V]ery readable....what is essentially a love story turns into a sensitive, powerful reflection on moral anguish in Vichy France....[with] something serious to say about the human condition: about changing perceptions of morality, existential solitude, the demumanizing effects of war, the nature of romantic love.
-- The New York Times Book Review
Financial Times
Faulks is beyond a doubt a master.
Daily Express (London)
A worthy successor to Birdsong. In Charlotte, Faulks has created a wonderfully complex and engaging heroine, whith whom it is hard not to fall a little in love.
Richard Bernstein
It is a love story and a spy story and a story about historical injury as well as a story about the Holocaust, the politics of Vichy, and the particulars of the infamous camp at Drancy...[T]hanks to the complex, enchanting vehicle of Charlotte and Mr. Faulk's grasp of political and moral history, he manages to make it work.
-- The New York Times
Entertainment Weekly
...[I]mpossibly high-minded...
Kirkus Reviews
England's redoubtable Faulks (A Fool's Alphabet; Birdsong) offers up a third solid, alluring, durable novel-set in 1942-43, just as the tide begins to turn, however slightly, against the Nazis. Charlotte Gray-pretty, intelligent, well-educated-is in her middle 20s when she leaves her native Scotland for London, hoping that in the capital she can do something more significant for the war effort. She wouldn't have expected, though, that a chance encounter with a worker in the secret diplomatic corps would lead to her being interviewed by "G Section" and sent (in careful disguise) to France to work within the very gradually unifying Resistance there. Even though (before she's parachuted into the village of Lavourette) Charlotte has fallen passionately in love with war-wearied RAF pilot Peter Gregory (who, not long after, "goes missing"), and even though her also-intense love of France is muddied by a badly impacted father-complex (her aloof parent, now a psychoanalyst, fought there in WWI), Charlotte is anything but the typically starry-eyed girl looking for love, adventure, and meaning.

Faulks' perfect and never false descriptions of France under the Occupation-the hunger, the monochrome bleakness, the increasing danger-suit Charlotte's mature young character just as perfectly as do the people she meets (Julien Levade, the idealistic young architect and resistance worker; his aging failed-artist father; varieties of townspeople on both the political left and right) and as do the dangers she herself encounters: never melodramatic, always riveting. Nor have grief and horror been more wrenchingly and unremittingly portrayed than here when first Julien's father and then the two young Jewish boys whom Julien has been hiding are sent to the camps and their deaths.... A war novel that should take its place among the masterpieces of the genre.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375501692
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/2/1999
  • Pages: 399
  • Product dimensions: 6.45 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Peter Gregory kicked the door of the dispersal hut closed behind him with the heel of his boot. He sensed the iciness of the air outside but was too well wrapped to feel it on his skin. He looked up and saw a big moon hanging still, while ragged clouds flew past and broke up like smoke in the darkness. He began to waddle across the grass, each step won from the limits of movement permitted by the parachute that hung down behind as he bucked and tossed his way forward. He heard the clank of the corporal fitter's bicycle where it juddered over the ground to his right. The chain needed oiling, he noted; the man was in the wrong gear and a metal mudguard was catching on the tyre with a rhythmic slur as the wheel turned.

He could see the bulk of his plane ahead, large in the night, with the three-bladed propeller stopped at a poised diagonal, the convex sweep of the upper fuselage looking sleeker in the darkness than by day. The fitter dropped his bicycle to the ground. He made his way over in the light of a feeble torch which he gripped between his teeth as he helped, with both hands braced against his parachute, to push Gregory up onto the wing. Then he clambered up himself as Gregory hoisted a leg over the side of the cockpit and slithered down inside.

"God, it's cold," said the fitter. "My hands can't feel a thing. This north wind."
Gregory switched on the instrument lighting and settled onto the sculpted metal seat, trying to make himself comfortable on his parachute.

The fitter was talking as Gregory's eyes went over the lit dials. "My boy's got this cough. I don't know what I can do about it, stuck down here. Oxygen?"
The engine was started and the manwas off the wing. He bobbed about underneath, then stood clear as Gregory ran up the engine before signalling him to pull out the chocks that held the plane against the wind. Gregory saw him hold up the torch when at la.st he straightened and picked up his fallen bicycle; he gave him a minute to pedal his way back to the fug of the blacked-out mess, to sweet tea and cigarettes. Then he opened the throttle and let the little plane creep forward across the grass, bouncin.g on plump wheels.

When he had taxied to the end of the strip, he turned the plane into the wind and waited. He shivered. With his bare fingers he was able to check the fixture of the oxygen and radio-transmitter leads in his headset. He inhaled the intoxicating smell of rotting rubber from his mask, then pulled the glove back onto his hand and grasped the stick between his knees.

The R/T barked in his ear--someone impatient to get to the barrel of beer he had seen being wheeled in that afternoon. The wind veered a little, due north, between the lines of hooded lamps on either side of the strip; it was making the plane toss like a .small boat at anchor. Gregory checked the propeller was in fine pitch and opened the throttle. He moved forward.

Almost at once the tail lifted and he felt the controls firm up in his hand. The engine moaned, and the plane bumped its way down the strip, where the forces of wind and speed first lifted it, then dropped it back to earth. He sensed the wheels come clear, then felt the ground once more banging through his spine as a down-draught forced him back. He began to mutter through clenched jaws, cursing, then with a small inward movement of his fingers eased the stick and felt the earth gone as the plane rose u.p greedily on the air.

Two red lights showed that the wheels were up and locked away. Watching the compass with one eye, he set the plane in a gentle climbing turn to the left. At about ten thousand feet he ran into moist and choppy cloud, thicker and more turbulent than he ha.d seen about the moon. He feared the plane's jolting movement as he nosed it upward: there was the sense of something else up there with them, another element bearing down on the clean lines of his flight. His eyes ran along the rows of instruments. Flyi.ng by night was a violation of instinct; there were no steeples or bridges from which to take a bearing, no flash of wingtip or underbelly to show the vital presence of other aircraft The Spitfire pilots' speed and daytime coordination were of no use: there were needles in glass jars and you had to trust them Even when you swore you could feel the brush of treetops on the undercarriage, you must believe the altimeter's finger pointing at ten thousand feet.

As the thudding airscrew churned up the night, Gregory stretched inside his clothes His feet were cold, despite the flying boots and two pairs of thick socks; he lifted them momentarily off the rudder bars and stamped them on the floor of the plane. Kilpatrick and Simmons had laughed when they came to fetch him to the mess after a flight one day and found him with his feet in a basin of hot water.

He was crossing the coast of England: chalk cliffs, sailing dinghies moored for better days, seaside towns with their whitewashed houses along the narrow streets that trickled down to wind-whipped fronts. When as a boy from India he had been sent to school by the English coast he had hated that wind and the blank sea with its baggy grey horizon.

This was the third time he had undertaken a similar flight, but it had taken him months to persuade his superiors that it was worth the risk First there was the squadron commander, Landon, to convince; then there was Group HQ to be won over The Senior Air Staff Officer told Landon he could not possibly risk losing a plane, let alone an experienced pilot, in such circumstances Gregory was never quite sure what Landon had finally said to convince him.

He shook his head and rubbed his thighs with his hands Beneath the fur-lined flying suit he wore a serge battledress, roll-necked sweater, pyjamas and a thick wool and silk aircrew vest If at least his feet had been warm, that might have stopped his body heat from leaking out onto the frozen rudder bars. As the little plane ploughed onwards, the instruments telling their unexcited story, Gregory felt a frisson of unearned responsibility: alone, entrusted, above the world Then he moved the stick forwards to begin his descent.

He had been to the town before the Germans came A French pilot took him to a bar called the Guillaume Tell, where they drank champagne, then to another where they ordered beer. The evening ended at La Lune, which was a brothel, but the French pilot didn't seem to care about the girls From Le Havre the squadron moved up the coast to Deauville and played golf.

When he dropped into the cloud, Gregory began to feel the familiar, unwanted sensation of such moments: someone would soon try to kill him In Le Havre an anti-aircraft gunner, though he didn't yet know it himself, would concentrate only on this murder. When Gregory had experienced ground-fire from British and French batteries, who had wrongly identified his aircraft as German, it had made him aware that the plane was nothing more than a few pieces of airborne metal and wood Anti-aircraft fire was different from fighter fire, though one thing was the same: a few inches from his eyes was a fuel tank waiting to explode.

Now he could make out the shape of docks, so far, the terrestrial world, beneath his boots; there were minimal lights, evidence of some defensive caution, but he could remember from his study of photographs where the oil tanks were. He put the plane into a leftward banking turn, wanting to gain height and gather himself for the dive He reached the top of his shallow climb and checked his position, hanging in the icy air.

He was laughing, though he heard nothing above the engine; for one more moment he held the plane level, then opened the throttle and pushed the stick forward. He watched the airspeed indicator moving up: 340, 360. He was coming in too steep: he was nose-heavy, he felt he would go over. Then, when he could see the ground--industrial shadows, bulky darkness--he could gauge where his horizon was He held the stick steady Gravity was starting to push his eyes back into their sockets and he began to swear. He could see what he took to be the oil depot and twitched the rudder to align himself. At last there was some response from the ground: he saw red balls of tracer curving through the air like boiling fruit, lazy until they reached him, then whipping past at the speed of light Nothing was coming close to him. His thumb stroked the gun button, and when the ground was so near he could almost sense it through his seat, he let the cannon go.

He heard their sound, like ripping cloth, as he pulled the stick back violently to climb He craned his neck but could see no gratifying holocaust beneath him, not even isolated fires When he thought he was out of range of ground defences, he slowed the rate of climb and felt the pressure slip from his neck and shoulders. He throttled back a little as he headed out northwest towards the sea; there was sweat running down his spine.

He breathed in and dropped the speed again, safe above the Channel waters He let the plane drift in a circle while he gathered himself and listened, but there was only the chugging engine and the slight whistle of wind through the airframe. His Hurricane carried four 20-mm Hispano cannons, known to their admirers as "tank-busters," and four 250-lb bombs in place of its regular machine guns. He calculated that he had about half his ammunition left; he could not return to base with it and he could not fire it into the empty sky as he flew back.

He went round once more, making certain of his position, then began to lose height slowly He pushed through the light cloud and picked up the outlines of the port below: he would flatten out along the harbour wall and fire as he turned to climb.

This time, the tracer started coming up at once, along the path of a weak searchlight Gregory opened the throttle wider and closed his ears to the engine's screaming. The plane was juddering as he straightened out. He was so low that he could see the ground, and there were no oil tanks in view He switched the button to fire and emptied the cannon at random in the direction of some parked lorries Then he pulled back the stick and climbed as fast as he could. He saw the tracer again on his port wing; then the rudder kicked his feet and he knew he had been shot in the tail.

The tracer stopped coming for him He looked down and saw a foaming black sea of welcome cloud. He started to level out, then breathed in deeply and blew the air towards the windscreen. He tested the rudder, one way, then the other; it seemed to react quite normally--the blow to the tail had apparently done no damage.

The southern shore of England was ahead At the airfield, there would be someone waiting for him at dispersal, with whisky if he wanted it Nothing could hurt him. The others were dead, but he was untouchable.

It had become suddenly brighter A mixture of elation and indifference to his own safety made him want to roll the plane upward, and he opened the throttle again: 320, 350 the needle said He adjusted the tail trim: it responded He pulled the stick back, gently, then harder till he felt the plane was vertical, hanging on the propeller He pushed the stick over to the right and felt the aircraft go round. He stopped and pushed the stick back. The horizon was upside down in the night He could see nothing, but he knew how the plane was flying He pushed the stick forward, then over to the left, and rolled out.

He felt sick Then he felt worse than sick: he felt disorientated He did not know which way up he was; sudden clouds were covering up the light of the moon. He pulled the stick back to climb but felt he was spinning; he was aware of the vastness of space around him and the little box in which he was plummeting.

Bloody Isaac, he was saying into his mouthpiece. Unless he could get a fix by a light or by some static point he did not know which way to push the stick. The tail must be more damaged than he had thought.

The plane bumped as it went into the cloud, and through the floor, though it must have been the canopy, Gregory briefly saw the moon . Craning his neck to keep the light in view, he brought the plane up and round on its axis. His back was aching with the pull and from the effort of keeping the moon in sight as he hauled the invisible horizon to where it should have been, the moon above, the ground below.

He dropped the speed and reset the altitude instruments, whose gyroscopes had been toppled by his roll. Something was wrong; although the rudder seemed to work, the weight did not feel right He set his course for the airfield and hoped the wind would let him land. Eventually he picked out the flarepath and brought his speed down to 150, then lowered the wheels He slowed again for the flaps, turned in steeply and felt the crosswind hammering the plane as he reached up to open the hood. The rudder bars were shivering as the wind ran through the damaged tail; below him, Gregory could see the pale runway lamps as they lurched from side to side He sank the plane down gently, but it kicked and rose on the wind, out towards the edge of the field He pushed open the throttle and began to climb again. This time he came in from a different angle and hit the ground hard He held it down and braked.

He taxied to dispersal, ran the petrol out of the carburettor and switched off He unstrapped himself and climbed out of the cockpit. As he stood on the wing he felt his legs tremble.

He walked over to the hut, pulling off his headset, running a hand back through his hair. There was the smell of a coke brazier; there was an anxious red face in the light.
"How was it, Greg?"
"It was cold."
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First Chapter

Chapter One


    Peter Gregory kicked the door of the dispersal hut closed behind him with the heel of his boot. He sensed the iciness of the air outside but was too well wrapped to feel it on his skin. He looked up and saw a big moon hanging still, while ragged clouds flew past and broke up like smoke in the darkness. He began to waddle across the grass, each step won from the limits of movement permitted by the parachute that hung down behind as he bucked and tossed his way forward. He heard the clank of the corporal fitter's bicycle where it juddered over the ground to his right. The chain needed oiling, he noted; the man was in the wrong gear and a metal mudguard was catching on the tyre with a rhythmic slur as the wheel turned.

    He could see the bulk of his plane ahead, large in the night, with the three-bladed propeller stopped at a poised diagonal, the convex sweep of the upper fuselage looking sleeker in the darkness than by day. The fitter dropped his bicycle to the ground. He made his way over in the light of a feeble torch which he gripped between his teeth as he helped, with both hands braced against his parachute, to push Gregory up onto the wing. Then he clambered up himself as Gregory hoisted a leg over the side of the cockpit and slithered down inside.

    "God, it's cold," said the fitter. "My hands can't feel a thing. This north wind."

    Gregory switched on the instrument lighting and settled onto the sculpted metal seat, trying to make himself comfortable on his parachute.

    The fitter was talking as Gregory's eyes went over the lit dials. "My boy's got this cough. I don't know what I can do about it, stuck down here. Oxygen?"

    The engine was started and the man was off the wing. He bobbed about underneath, then stood clear as Gregory ran up the engine before signalling him to pull out the chocks that held the plane against the wind. Gregory saw him hold up the torch when at last he straightened and picked up his fallen bicycle; he gave him a minute to pedal his way back to the fug of the blacked-out mess, to sweet tea and cigarettes. Then he opened the throttle and let the little plane creep forward across the grass, bouncing on plump wheels.

    When he had taxied to the end of the strip, he turned the plane into the wind and waited. He shivered. With his bare fingers he was able to check the fixture of the oxygen and radio-transmitter leads in his headset. He inhaled the intoxicating smell of rotting rubber from his mask, then pulled the glove back onto his hand and grasped the stick between his knees.

    The R/T barked in his ear--someone impatient to get to the barrel of beer he had seen being wheeled in that afternoon. The wind veered a little, due north, between the lines of hooded lamps on either side of the strip; it was making the plane toss like a small boat at anchor. Gregory checked the propeller was in fine pitch and opened the throttle. He moved forward.

    Almost at once the tail lifted and he felt the controls firm up in his hand. The engine moaned, and the plane bumped its way down the strip, where the forces of wind and speed first lifted it, then dropped it back to earth. He sensed the wheels come clear, then felt the ground once more banging through his spine as a down-draught forced him back. He began to mutter through clenched jaws, cursing, then with a small inward movement of his fingers eased the stick and felt the earth gone as the plane rose up greedily on the air.

    Two red lights showed that the wheels were up and locked away. Watching the compass with one eye, he set the plane in a gentle climbing turn to the left. At about ten thousand feet he ran into moist and choppy cloud, thicker and more turbulent than he had seen about the moon. He feared the plane's jolting movement as he nosed it upward: there was the sense of something else up there with them, another element bearing down on the clean lines of his flight. His eyes ran along the rows of instruments. Flying by night was a violation of instinct; there were no steeples or bridges from which to take a bearing, no flash of wingtip or underbelly to show the vital presence of other aircraft. The Spitfire pilots' speed and daytime coordination were of no use: there were needles in glass jars and you had to trust them. Even when you swore you could feel the brush of treetops on the undercarriage, you must believe the altimeter's finger pointing at ten thousand feet.

    As the thudding airscrew churned up the night, Gregory stretched inside his clothes. His feet were cold, despite the flying boots and two pairs of thick socks; he lifted them momentarily off the rudder bars and stamped them on the floor of the plane. Kilpatrick and Simmons had laughed when they came to fetch him to the mess after a flight one day and found him with his feet in a basin of hot water.

    He was crossing the coast of England: chalk cliffs, sailing dinghies moored for better days, seaside towns with their whitewashed houses along the narrow streets that trickled down to wind-whipped fronts. When as a boy from India he had been sent to school by the English coast he had hated that wind and the blank sea with its baggy grey horizon.

    This was the third time he had undertaken a similar flight, but it had taken him months to persuade his superiors that it was worth the risk. First there was the squadron commander, Landon, to convince; then there was Group HQ to be won over. The Senior Air Staff Officer told Landon he could not possibly risk losing a plane, let alone an experienced pilot, in such circumstances. Gregory was never quite sure what Landon had finally said to convince him.

    He shook his head and rubbed his thighs with his hands. Beneath the fur-lined flying suit he wore a serge battledress, roll-necked sweater, pyjamas and a thick wool and silk aircrew vest. If at least his feet had been warm, that might have stopped his body heat from leaking out onto the frozen rudder bars. As the little plane ploughed onwards, the instruments telling their unexcited story, Gregory felt a frisson of unearned responsibility: alone, entrusted, above the world. Then he moved the stick forwards to begin his descent.

    He had been to the town before the Germans came. A French pilot took him to a bar called the Guillaume Tell, where they drank champagne, then to another where they ordered beer. The evening ended at La Lune, which was a brothel, but the French pilot didn't seem to care about the girls. From Le Havre the squadron moved up the coast to Deauville and played golf.

    When he dropped into the cloud, Gregory began to feel the familiar, unwanted sensation of such moments: someone would soon try to kill him. In Le Havre an anti-aircraft gunner, though he didn't yet know it himself, would concentrate only on this murder. When Gregory had experienced ground-fire from British and French batteries, who had wrongly identified his aircraft as German, it had made him aware that the plane was nothing more than a few pieces of airborne metal and wood. Anti-aircraft fire was different from fighter fire, though one thing was the same: a few inches from his eyes was a fuel tank waiting to explode.

    Now he could make out the shape of docks, so far, the terrestrial world, beneath his boots; there were minimal lights, evidence of some defensive caution, but he could remember from his study of photographs where the oil tanks were. He put the plane into a leftward banking turn, wanting to gain height and gather himself for the dive. He reached the top of his shallow climb and checked his position, hanging in the icy air.

    He was laughing, though he heard nothing above the engine; for one more moment he held the plane level, then opened the throttle and pushed the stick forward. He watched the airspeed indicator moving up: 340, 360. He was coming in too steep: he was nose-heavy, he felt he would go over. Then, when he could see the ground--industrial shadows, bulky darknes--he could gauge where his horizon was. He held the stick steady. Gravity was starting to push his eyes back into their sockets and he began to swear. He could see what he took to be the oil depot and twitched the rudder to align himself. At last there was some response from the ground: he saw red balls of tracer curving through the air like boiling fruit, lazy until they reached him, then whipping past at the speed of light. Nothing was coming close to him. His thumb stroked the gun button, and when the ground was so near he could almost sense it through his seat, he let the cannon go.

    He heard their sound, like ripping cloth, as he pulled the stick back violently to climb. He craned his neck but could see no gratifying holocaust beneath him, not even isolated fires. When he thought he was out of range of ground defences, he slowed the rate of climb and felt the pressure slip from his neck and shoulders. He throttled back a little as he headed out northwest towards the sea; there was sweat running down his spine.

    He breathed in and dropped the speed again, safe above the Channel waters. He let the plane drift in a circle while he gathered himself and listened, but there was only the chugging engine and the slight whistle of wind through the airframe. His Hurricane carried four 20-mm Hispano cannons, known to their admirers as "tank-busters," and four 250-lb bombs in place of its regular machine guns. He calculated that he had about half his ammunition left; he could not return to base with it and he could not fire it into the empty sky as he flew back.

    He went round once more, making certain of his position, then began to lose height slowly. He pushed through the light cloud and picked up the outlines of the port below: he would flatten out along the harbour wall and fire as he turned to climb.

    This time, the tracer started coming up at once, along the path of a weak searchlight. Gregory opened the throttle wider and closed his ears to the engine's screaming. The plane was juddering as he straightened out. He was so low that he could see the ground, and there were no oil tanks in view. He switched the button to fire and emptied the cannon at random in the direction of some parked lorries. Then he pulled back the stick and climbed as fast as he could. He saw the tracer again on his port wing; then the rudder kicked his feet and he knew he had been shot in the tail.

    The tracer stopped coming for him. He looked down and saw a foaming black sea of welcome cloud. He started to level out, then breathed in deeply and blew the air towards the windscreen. He tested the rudder, one way, then the other; it seemed to react quite normally--the blow to the tail had apparently done no damage.

    The southern shore of England was ahead. At the airfield, there would be someone waiting for him at dispersal, with whisky if he wanted it. Nothing could hurt him. The others were dead, but he was untouchable.

    It had become suddenly brighter. A mixture of elation and indifference to his own safety made him want to roll the plane upward, and he opened the throttle again: 320, 350 the needle said. He adjusted the tail trim: it responded. He pulled the stick back, gently, then harder till he felt the plane was vertical, hanging on the propeller. He pushed the stick over to the right and felt the aircraft go round. He stopped and pushed the stick back. The horizon was upside down in the night. He could see nothing, but he knew how the plane was flying. He pushed the stick forward, then over to the left, and rolled out.

    He felt sick. Then he felt worse than sick: he felt disorientated. He did not know which way up he was; sudden clouds were covering up the light of the moon. He pulled the stick back to climb but felt he was spinning; he was aware of the vastness of space around him and the little box in which he was plummeting.

    Bloody Isaac, he was saying into his mouthpiece. Unless he could get a fix by a light or by some static point he did not know which way to push the stick. The tail must be more damaged than he had thought.

    The plane bumped as it went into the cloud, and through the floor, though it must have been the canopy, Gregory briefly saw the moon. Craning his neck to keep the light in view, he brought the plane up and round on its axis. His back was aching with the pull and from the effort of keeping the moon in sight as he hauled the invisible horizon to where it should have been, the moon above, the ground below.

    He dropped the speed and reset the altitude instruments, whose gyroscopes had been toppled by his roll. Something was wrong; although the rudder seemed to work, the weight did not feel right. He set his course for the airfield and hoped the wind would let him land. Eventually he picked out the flarepath and brought his speed down to 150, then lowered the wheels. He slowed again for the flaps, turned in steeply and felt the crosswind hammering the plane as he reached up to open the hood. The rudder bars were shivering as the wind ran through the damaged tail; below him, Gregory could see the pale runway lamps as they lurched from side to side. He sank the plane down gently, but it kicked and rose on the wind, out towards the edge of the field. He pushed open the throttle and began to climb again. This time he came in from a different angle and hit the ground hard. He held it down and braked.

    He taxied to dispersal, ran the petrol out of the carburettor and switched off. He unstrapped himself and climbed out of the cockpit. As he stood on the wing he felt his legs tremble.

    He walked over to the hut, pulling off his headset, running a hand back through his hair. There was the smell of a coke brazier; there was an anxious red face in the light.

    "How was it, Greg?"

    "It was cold."

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Reading Group Guide

About the Book:

This discussion guide will assist readers in exploring Charlotte Gray. Hopefully, it will help create a bond not only between the book and the reader, but also between the members of the group. In your support of this book, please feel free to copy and distribute this guide to best facilitate the program. Thank you.Discussion Questions:

Question: The author described his motivation for writing Charlotte Gray in this way: "I wanted to look at the insidious way that war affects individual lives." War has an obvious effect on the love affair between Charlotte and Peter Gregory-it interrupts it. But what deeper effect does the war have on them as individuals, and how does it change the course of their relationship? How has war effected relationships around you?

Question: Many reviewers have praised Faulks' strengths as an historical novelist, particularly his skill with details and his ability to bring his period settings to life. What scenes and settings in Charlotte Gray are especially touching or memorable to you and why?

Question: When Charlotte is living in France working for the Resistance she becomes increasingly attracted to the elderly Jewish artist, Levade, and, for different reasons, to his son, Julian. What do these men represent to her, and what is she searching for in her relationship with them? Are they simply replacements for her father and lover or is it more complicated than that?

Question: Although Charlotte Gray is set during World War II, the memory and legacy of the First World War infuses the novel. In what ways does Faulks accomplish this, and why do you think he has done so? Does it change the way you think of the First and Second World War? (There is an example on page 107 which describes a town and the effects the two wars have had on it.)

Question: Faulks uses the same verb, "disappear," along with other parallels in describing the fates of the young Duguay brothers (page 370) and of Charlotte and Gregory (page 399). What point do you think he is trying to make by doing this?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2006

    Good stuff, but not without reservations..

    What I like about this novel is the same sort of thing I like about writers like Charles Frazier, Cormac McCarthy, David Anthony Durham and Maria Doria Russell. Namely, they¿re literary writers who aren¿t afraid to write a novel with a plot. With drama. With love stories and betrayals. With small people caught up in big moments in history. That¿s absolutely grand. I wish there were more novelists like them. I don¿t think Sebastian Faulks is quite as good a writer as any of the above, but he does deliver in a great many ways. The opening scene as Peter Gregory crash lands his plane is marvelous, full of danger and action straight away. I commend him for making a female character the focus of what¿s essentially a war novel, or, at least, a war/resistance novel. So that's the good part. The book does falter, though, with many of Charlotte's improbable decisions. She's so determined and skilled and focused it's hard to believe. At the same time some of the love scene material is over the top and in general a bit maudlin. You could blame it on the character, but the author seems to want us to believe as Charlotte does. So, it's not perfect. But it's not a bad read either. If the subject matter interests you do give it a try. It's entertaining, if not a masterpiece.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2005

    Good story

    I enjoyed this book for the most part. The adventures were good, but I could have use more details. The end was a bit abrupt and I could have had more about Peter and his situation. Overall good adventure...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2003

    painfully touching

    This story touched me in a way that no otherWWII novel has. The warmth of charlotte's character and the insight the authur reveals to the reder about children and parents is amazing. The love story is wonderful without being contrived. Of course the pain presented by andre and Jacob is almost too much to bear. I am a Jew who has 3 year old twin grandsons one who is Jacob. I loved the book while crying, knowing that these events happened over and over again.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2003

    Excelent Book.....horrible movie

    Charlotte Gray is a great story following her through her missions through France always hopeing she will find her love. the hardest part the read was what happend to the 2 jewish brothers. i loved the book and was very very disapointed by the movie version. it came out with a completly different ending that i did not like. dont watch the movie first if you must. read the book then watch the movie and decide which it better.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2002

    Amazing Story

    This book was amazing. One could not help relating themselves to Charlotte in some way or another. Faulk writes beautifully and conveys setting, emotions, and feelings effectively. The story draws you in; not only because you want to know what happens in the end, but also because the words are enjoyable to read and Faulk's writing beautiful. His portrayal of an independant woman in a time of trial is the best of it's kind. I am 16 years old and I only read this book bacause the movie is coming out. Thanks to the good old motion picture, I heard about one of the most inspiring books I have ever read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2002

    Interesting Perspective

    Though Charlotte Gray doesn't give such a brutal and touching perspective like Faulks' Birdsong, it's still very well-written and enjoyable. I like the different perspective it gives from a person who is not fighting in the trenches but in the form of resistance. I also thought it was very interesting how Faulks incorporated a character from Birdsong into Charlotte Gray.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2001

    Charlotte Gray

    In this book hope and despair are distributed in equal measure. As we are taken into the lives of Charlotte and Gregory, we feel that ultimately there would be hope for mankind. Their love is a beacon that transcends the misery and horror of war. The characterization of Andre and Jacob, however, vividly and poignantly brings the horror and pain of war into focus. Sebastian Faulks is realistic in his approach and the novel is convincingly written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2000

    Engrossing

    Very good flow, but the most astounding parts are the chapter/paragraphs dealing with the 2 Jewish Boys Andre and Jacob.You just can't help in falling in love with them. Handled sensitively by the author and you wish your physical presence in that era. The rest of the story with the main protagonist is ably done and just so. Good Buy and good value for money.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 1999

    Did not grab my attention

    After reading all of the critical reviews of this book, I was expecting big things. I was disappointed. I read the first 125 pages, and finally realized that not much had happened, and the book still had not gotten my attention, a quarter of the way through! The premise of the story about a young couple who just meet being separated during WWII made for a promising start, but the story just dragged along and never really got going. It focused too much on the title character's musings about her depressed childhood and her fantasies about her missing boyfriend; difficult for a male to wade through.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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