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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.