The Barnes & Noble Review
"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 this fine novel. Faulks best known in the United States for Birdsong, his acclaimed World War I novel turns in Charlotte Gray to the dark heart of the 20th Century: World War II and in particular the black year of 1942, while Germany still loomed as the likely victor.
Charlotte Gray sounds like the title of a 19th-century novel, and its heroine is a young woman who like George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke or Henry James's Isabel Archer draws everyone to her by virtue of her radiant if fragile promise. She 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.
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's not sure quite what for the war effort. On the train she meets 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. In London, Charlotte attends a pretentious literary party and finds herself dancing with RAF pilot Peter Gregory and before long she falls in love with this kind, damaged veteran of the Battle of Britain. Their love is barely conceived, though, when Gregory goes down in a new mission over France. Shortly thereafter, an interview with G Section provides Charlotte the opportunity to go to France as a courier. This is her official mission, at any rate; her secret, quixotic one is, of course, to find Gregory.
Charlotte Gray is a suspenseful high-wire act and a brilliantly affecting love story set against a sweeping backdrop of world history. Some may read it without tears, but few will read it without gratitude. Compelling, detailed, and boundlessly humane, it is, as a historical novel, a virtuoso performance.
One of the most impressive novelists of our generation...who is growing in authority with every book.
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
...[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
Faulks is beyond a doubt a master.
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.
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.
To friends and family, she was Charlotte Gray, a young Scotswoman who had traveled to London in early 1942 to get a job to support the war effort. To G-Section, the British secret service, she became "Daniele," a clever, French-speaking courier and informant for the British in central France, an area where she had spent much of her childhood. To the townspeople of Lavaurette and other neighboring villages, she was "Dominique Guilbert," a Parisian, whose husband was fighting in the army and who worked as a serving girl at Domaine for a painter named Auguste Levade. To Peter Gregory, a RAF pilot, she was the lover he felt he did not deserve, yet whose memory kept him alive until he could make his escape from France. Through Charlotte's eyes the growing tensions between the French people, the Vichy government, the Gaullists and the Nazi occupation force crystallize. She witnesses firsthand the increasingly insidious persecution of Jewish citizens of France, including the children, and their eventual tragic deportation to Poland. The author's complex use of language and the large number of characters may slow some readers down, but those who persist will be rewarded with an intriguing portrayal of one of the world's most devastating wars. With the publication of Charlotte Gray, Sebastian Faulks concludes a trilogy of novels begun with The Girl at the Lion d'Or, and followed by Birdsong (reviewed in KLIATT, Nov. 1997). KLIATT Codes: SARecommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Random House/Vintage, 399p, 21cm, 98-33658, $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Susan G. Allison; Libn., Lewiston H.S., Lewiston, ME January 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 1)
A Scottish lass tracks her lost RAF lover in France. Faulks's Birdsong was big.
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.
From the Publisher
"A miraculous novel. . . . Faulks is a master indeed." San Francisco Chronicle
"Eloquent and moving. . . . A page turner for grown-ups, a novel with the rich detail of a great historical narrative." -The Baltimore Sun
"There is no shortage of dramatic tension, excitement or persuasive detail [in Charlotte Gray]. . . . Mr. Faulks is a prodigiously talented writer." The New York Times
"This powerful novel...explodes into an immensely gripping tale." The Wall Street Journal
"What begins as a conventional love story becomes an adventure of the spirit... Charlotte Gray has depth and texture." The Washington Post
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
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.
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
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
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."