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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.