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Sebastian Faulks can be a rather challenging author at times. His plots tend to be multi-layered and complex, his characters often selfish and unlikeable and his books long. When this works (as in Human Traces), it makes for fascinating reading and a book which provides genuine insight into human nature. When it doesn't (A Week in December) it can come across as self-indulgent and smug. Whatever your opinion, you can rarely accuse him of being mediocre. It's odd, then to have to report that Charlotte Gray comes close.
During World War 2, Scottish born Charlotte moves to London with the vague idea that she wants to do something to help the war effort. Following a brief, but intense affair with a pilot, she finds herself in France, involved in the resistance movement and hunting for her lover who went missing whilst on a mission.
Charlotte Gray bears all the hallmarks of a Sebastian Faulks novel. It is hugely atmospheric, paying real attention to detail to create an authentic atmosphere. This is not the lazy war-time London (or France) portrayed in most books or films. This is very much a London (or France) of contrasts. In some areas, the war is biting hard, inflicting death, misery and hardship on almost everyone; in other areas, people carry on almost as before, eating well and enjoying themselves, the war having no noticeable impact on their daily lives. This more realistic and accurate portrayal helps to establish an atmosphere where not everything is black and white. The places that appear in the novel appear as living, vibrant, real places (as, of course, they are) offering a glimpse into what life was really like in different parts of war-torn Europe.
The same is true of the characters. They are well drawn, convincing and well developed. Faulks writes them in such a way that they feel like living, breathing people; genuine historical characters rather than fictional constructs. This helps to draw you into the book. Initially, you are intrigued by the characters and want to know more about what makes them tick. As you learn more, you become fascinated by them, come to care for them and fear for their safety.
Like the setting, the characters are not just lazy stereotypes. It's not a book full of plucky Brits and evil Nazis. People are just doing what most of us would do - just trying to get on with living in some very trying circumstances whilst saving as much of our consciences as is possible. Some characters act in ways which seem quite despicable. Yet because Faulks has taken the time to develop them, such acts are at least understandable, if not particularly palatable. This provides some interesting insights into the conflict between human nature and political reality; why, for example, some people chose to collaborate with the Nazis, or refused to believe the reports of what was happening to the Jews.
Where Charlotte Gray falls down is in the pacing. Faulks' books are often slower paced and usually this is a good thing, giving the author chance to build his complex plot lines and very human characters. Here, everything feels just a little too slow. Pages and pages and pages go by and virtually nothing seems to have happened. This goes beyond establishing atmosphere and just ends up making the book drag. There were more than a few times when I wished the author would get a bit of a move and and hurry the plot along a little
What can't be denied is Faulks' ability with language. He demonstrates a mastery of English that is not particularly showy (he doesn't feel the need to use long words to show how "clever" he is), but which is highly effective. Just occasionally the language can tip over into verbose and a little flowery, but for the most part it is spot-on; evocative of the period setting and very rich. Whilst his use of language is actually quite straightforward, it gives the book a depth that is missing in most modern literature.
Charlotte Gray was Faulks' second book (after the hugely successful Birdsong) and in many ways, it equates to that difficult second album. There are parts which are very good indeed, and it is never anything less than interesting. Full of intriguing characters acting in very convincing ways, it is an excellent study of the different ways humans respond in difficult situations. At the same time, the snail like pace can be very trying and at times it did feel a bit of a chore to read.
Charlotte Gray will cost £5-6 new (Kindle or paperback), but can often be found in charity shops for around £2. I'd advise going down this latter route, as it's perhaps a book you will only want to read once.
Vintage New Edition, 1999
(c) copyright SWSt 2013
Sebastian Faulks is well known as a period drama writer, focusing on wartime romance and long descriptive passages. Knowing this isn't really my thing, I thought I would give this a go. My wife and mum had both praised it, saying how well written it was, and I thought I would at least try it. I hadn't heard one person say anything negative about Faulks.
It became pretty clear early on that nothing was going to happen very quickly in this book. I am the sort of person who loves a good crime thriller or a fast paced, easy to read book such as a James Patterson or Ian Rankin. What I found with Charlotte Gray was a wonderful story but one that I would have to be patient with if I was to finish and enjoy it.
The plot is a well contrived one. It is set in 1942 during the second world war, and features Charlotte Gray, contributing to the war effort by travelling from London to Scotland, before being couriered over to France to aid the allies there. Along the way, she falls in love with an airman, and holds out hope that he will return safely from the war. Faulks gives us the impression that this will never happen, and I spent the whole of the novel hoping beyond hope everything was going to be okay.
Other events cause Charlotte to focus her attentions elsewhere, as Faulks examines the harsh conditions the occupying Nazis put on French citizens as they strove to win the war by force and political will. The treatment of the French is portrayed as brutal and unfair, which is the general consensus anyway. I found this to be a very clever way of drawing me in as a reader and getting me on side with Charlotte and her friends.
The book is very well written, but I couldn't get away from the fact that the passages were long and descriptive, and the language was far more proper than some of the easier to read books that are published on a more regular basis. The language is clean and crisp, but definitely suits the time the novel is based around. This is a good point for the novel and for how it works, but a negative for me as a reader. I found it hard to get into the book, and kept wanting something to happen. When it did, the actions and events tended to be glossed over a bit too abruptly for my liking before returning to what seems like Faulks' comfort zone: artistic description and the explanation of feelings.
Overall, I find it hard to give this book a thumbs up. It is not a bad book, but it is just not for me, and I have to accept that I will find books like this. I appreciate the quality of writing, but this is more the sort of book I would prefer to capture the story of by watching the film. I did finish the book, and was glad when I did because it had been hard going, but the tale did stick in my mind, and this is testament to a skillful author.
Charlotte Gray retails at £6.99, but is available from amazon.co.uk brand new for £5.99. I am sure you will be able to pick up an even cheaper copy somewhere, either online or in a charity shop, especially if you're happy with a second hand copy.
I have just finished this and found this extremely moving-not the spy story I was expecting.Though I had not seen the film,all I knew about this novel before I read it was that the movie starred Cate Blanchett whom I must admit to having a minor crush on.Seeing as this had been marketed as a love story though always put me off the film version.
The emphasis on the novel is less about the romance though and more an examination of events in occupied France during the second world war-the tragedy,heartache and emotions felt by it's citizens as an era of distrust evolves around them are all given the literary treatment as neighbours begin to wonder whom amongst them are actually Nazi collaborators.Everyone,it seems,wants the best for France but everyone has a different idea what its future should be and in this stuggle,the Jewish population seem to come out the worst.
The main plot,around which everything else is seamlessly wrapped,concerns the story of Charlotte Grey who travels to london from scotland to help with the war effort and is recruited to work as a courier into occupied france.When her lover,an airman,goes missing there-she stays in place long after her current mission is over;determined to locate him,convinced he is still alive when everyone else believes him to be lost.
This leads to her meeting a whole host of endearing characters doing their best to survive in an enviroment where everyone has to watch out for themselves in fear of their neighbours reporting them to the german forces; who are becoming an ever increasing presence in the country during these most troubled of times.
some of the scenes are extremely moving especially when dealing with the arrest of suspected jews,their transport to the concentration camps and their anxiety of what awaits them when they arrive. At times it is almost as though you are there with the characters and is one of the best examples yet that I have come across of what it must have been like to live through this era in history.
This is one of those books that really made me sit up and think about these times much more seriously than I I ever had before and this is an engaging novel well worth a read.At times the supporting characters have more effect on you than the main protagonists,charlotte and her lover who often feel a little pushed aside,but that is what transcends this book from just another spy story to a thoughtful examination of a time many of us have either forgotten or weren't around to see....READ THIS,it is well worth sticking with even if it is a little slow to start!
This is not a love story but a true-to-life novel about the endurance of the human spirit.Give it a go.
I was expecting this to be an intelligently written second world war thriller. I was surprised by the degree to which this is not in fact a thriller novel. It is however, brilliantly devised and written and very much about the second world war. The setting is largely France, dealing with French responses to the occupation - unlike the image created by 'allo allo', most people were not in the resistence, many collaborated, including the then Vichy government. In war time, people often do terrible things, and this book does not shy away from exploring the inhumanity that war encourages. The book follows the lives of a range of characters - centered on Charlotte Gray. Charlotte - a young Scottish woman trying to do her bit for the war effort. Posessed of excellent French language skills, she ends up working for some covert government outfit. She falls in love with an airman. Charlotte goes to France to carry messages, but stays to suport the resistence and the friends she has made there. She is also looking for her lost airman. Peter Gregory - airman and Charlotte's lover. He's a grim man with something of a death wish, and as a reader you never really get close to him, although for Charlotte's sake you have to worry about his fate. Julien Levade - part Jewish son of a painter, he's a member of the french resistence and a really likeable character. He strives to do the right thing and has a real passion for life. Andre and Jacob - two young Jewsih boys who's parents are sent to camps at the begninning of the book. Some of the local people hide them, but others are keen to expose them for their own ends. These children are innocent pawns in a terrible game and are the main method through which the darker side of occupied France is explored. There are two features which, for me, made this book utterly compelling. Firstly, it emphasises the ordinariness of the people caught up in th
e war- they weren't supermen and superwomen, their motives would have been complex and odd, they would have made mistakes. Secondly, I like the way in which Faulks resists conventional notions of plot - the high octaine drama littered with vital coincidences and crossed paths does not happen. It is an extraordinary tale of ordinary people, and that makes this book very powerful reading indeed.
Doing for the 2nd World War what he did for the 1st in "Birdsong", Sebastian Faulks presents a wonderful picture of life in France during the war years. Charlotte Gray is sent to Occupied France to run an errand for an undercover special operations unit. However she has a mission of her own - to find her lover, and airman lost in action over France. She stays in France, against her orders, and settles in the small town of Lauverette whilst she tries to find information about her lover. Hiding her identity from the townspeople she suffers, along with them, at the hands of the occupying german army.She finds work and friendship with a cantankerous artist, Levade, whose son runs the local resistance unit. Meanwhile her lover, Peter Gregory, injured and alone, is attempting to find a way back across the channel impeded by his tenuous grasp of the French language but aided by french people supporting the Allied effort. As the war progresses, things in Lauverette become worse neighbours decry their neighbours to the German authorities as pressure is put on by local commanders to fill the quotas of "undesirables" being sent to concentration camps. Charlottes employer, Levade, is packed off to a concentration camp despite having no religious beliefs himself because his grandfather had a Jewish mother. We see through his eyes the dreadful way in which Jewish people, including children, were treated in the concentration camps. There is a link to Birdsong, we discover that Charlottes father served under Wraysford(the main character of Birdsong) during the 1st World War and his daughters experiences in France enable her at last to make peace with her father and make sense of a confusing episode from her past. This book brings the period to life and teaches the reader about the situation in France at that time. In particular the circumstances that drove people to betray friends and neighbou
rs they had known for years, and the bravery of those who resisted the German occupation. It explores the morality of persecuting people because of religious belief or any other "difference". But, above all this is a love story and a very powerful one, two people attempting to find each other and return home, each one only able to continue by keeping the other in mind. If you've read Birdsong you'll love this book too, and if you haven't then read them both!
A young woman travels to occupied France in 1942, both to carry out a mission for British Intelligence and to search for her lover, an English airman who is missing in action. Once there, she witnesses the horror of French collusion with the Nazis and also the tremendous courage of the Resistance.