City of Spies by Mara Timon – a young woman in a wartime city balancing on the edge of neutrality

 

Realistically exciting and a thriller which maintains a breathless pace, this is an adventure in wartime Europe which expands on the already fascinating stories of female Special Operations Executive heroines. Elisabeth de Mornay is a woman with an obscure past, a perilous present, and an uncertain future. Operating on several levels Elisabeth herself is trying to work out which identity is most effective in a country which is balancing its alliances between German forces, the allies headed by British interests, and the disparate interests of Russians, Spanish and other nationalities all jostling for space and influence as seen in the large number of refugees in a small country. Elisabeth has discovered the high cost of being an agent in France over some time, as the danger of getting close to people as well as the danger of betrayal has left her determined to survive in any way. This is a brilliantly researched novel which revels in the details of a setting intimately described, the clothes that much of rationed Europe could only dream of, and the food and drink that seems to be little affected by shortages. Going under various guises she must work out who, if anyone, she can trust, when no one is completely as they seem.  This is a well written book which I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 

 

The book opens with Cecile recalling her time in France as a “pianist” or radio operative. Partly lucky, partly because she is brave and resourceful, she has survived thus far, but one more betrayal has propelled her to seek sanctuary with an older woman even though her very presence is a threat. Her training means that she knows when she is being followed, and what to do in hand to hand combat. She has an incredibly strong need to survive, which keeps her going even when under fire. A chance encounter leads to a whole new set of problems, and means that she turns up in Lisbon in June 1943. Her new setting means a new role with an old contact in a new context, an encounter which exposes several facts about her background. Slipping into the  role of a mysterious French widow who has recently arrived in Lisbon as a refugee from occupied France, she has the house, clothes and identity fabricated for her, but her own preparations means that she goes further to create other disguises in case of need. As she begins to blend in with a society of refugees and transitory residents of a country balancing on the edge of neutrality, the gossip, jealousies and dangers of a confusing place mean that she must constantly adjust her assumptions about those around her.

 

This is a book that is virtually impossible to put down when engaged with the adventures of a remarkable woman. I enjoyed Elisabeth’s story in France as she takes on huge challenges, but it is in Lisbon among a community of potential spies and military from Germany and other enemies that the narrative really comes alive as she must try to double guess everyone who she meets. The setting is beautifully described; the cafes, the parties, the streets and the countryside all come alive in glorious detail. The character of Elisabeth is a wonderful one, as she uses her intelligence and cunning to prepare as much as possible for threats and attempts on her life. A fast moving and enjoyable story with a warmth of personality which is memorable, I thoroughly recommend this remarkable novel. 

I feel really proud to be starting the blog tour for this wonderful book. In the back of the book there is an historical note about the elements of the story as researched by the author, and a question and answer section which gives more details about the writing of the novel. These additional sections are fascinating and well worth a read in their own right.

Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees – in the aftermath of war, food is the code

 

 

After the Second World War finished, the state of much of mainland Europe was still confused. Refugees or “displaced persons” moved across borders of former countries, Germany was divided into zones between the victorious forces, but squabbles about a new world order were dominating any attempt to rebuild cities. Into this world arrives Edith Graham who has spent the war teaching at a girls’ school, but now wants to do her bit in sorting out schools in the British zone. That would be a sufficient challenge, but her friends want to give her different missions, mainly in terms of discovering those convinced Nazis who are hiding in the ruins of a society. She has her own agenda, looking for her ex lover. While she is given official unofficial contacts, in order to transmit information to a friend she comes up with an unusual idea: a code based on a specific cookery book, hidden in innocent seeming recipes. The book brilliantly describes her feelings on arriving in Germany, her shock at the state of the buildings and plight of the people, and her confusion at who she can truly trust. This is an excellent testament to the spirit of those who wanted to help rebuild a world, but also a strong examination of some of the urge to punish those who did such appalling things in the name of a terrifying ideology and aggressive self interest. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review such a powerful historical novel of a remarkable time in Germany.

 

Edith is an excellent German speaker who is resentful of her war experience limited to teaching girls and caring for her widowed mother. When she gets the opportunity to go to Germany with the education corp, she is keen to go, if only for a belated chance to make a difference. However, it seems that she is required to do more, to discover the fate of some who disappeared, whether friends or enemies. Not that any of it is straightforward, as she is aware some of those placing these demands have their own agendas. Having begun a second career writing recipes and cooking hints under an assumed name, she decides to use her keen observation of food to convey secrets, impressions and information to a friend, Dori, in letters that may well be censored.  Her arrival in the British zone shows her the inequalities of the British who have too much food, power and influence, in contrast to the surviving victims of a war that has displaced huge numbers of people who struggle to find shelter and scraps of food. Her compassion for others, especially the children, reveals that so many have their own story of terrible suffering, and she tries to change some situations. She discovers secrets, dangers, physical attraction, threats and so much more in cities forever transformed by recent events. She finds friends, allies and suspicious individuals, and it is so difficult to work out who, if anyone she can trust. Meanwhile, she comments on the food, the menus, the terrible and fascinating fare presented to her and others in a place of famine and plenty. 

 

This is an elegantly written book of harsh realities but also genuine understanding of people in extreme circumstances. It conveys a terrific sense of place, of cold, of the ruins in which people scrape a living almost alongside those who live and work in enormous buildings. Rees is so skilled at drawing out characters in extremes of cruelty, passion and other emotions that it is a fascinating book, even with its touching testimonies of outrages. She creates images of such powerful scenes that are haunting and memorable. I recommend this book to all those who are interested in the aftermath of war, the experience of people left to cope, and the physical and mental scars of terrible events. By focusing on Edith, the reader is given a real insight into the nearly impossible to describe situation through the eyes of a sympathetic woman.  

 

I really enjoyed this book, if only because it shows such a human response to terrible situations. Compared with some of the books I read and review on this blog, it is a tough read, but so powerful.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter – Downes – Laura’s single summer’s day in 1946

One Fine Day (Virago Modern Classics): Panter-Downes, Mollie ...

 

It is 1946, and the Second World War is over. The effects of it, however, are only now being felt by the village and family at the centre of this short and beautifully written novel. All of the action takes place in one idyllic summer’s day, mainly concerning the Marshall family. Laura and Stephen have lived in their house for years, but before there has been the bustle of servants and a house. This book shows how the family and the people around them are adapting to a whole new way of life in a new world. There are families who are continuing much as they have for generations, in language, expectations, even in the houses they live in have changed very little. Equally, there are those who must move on, change with the times, find a new way of life. In one day we follow Laura in her attempts to bear the entire burden of a challenging house, Stephen in his journey to and from work as he realises the difference between before and after the war, and Victoria, their daughter, as she sees life differently in another house. In addition, the reader is shown some of the other people in this distinctive time, the author gives many people a voice, especially Mrs Pout, the daily ‘help’, with her talk of “kewpongs” for ration coupons and her trenchant views on her fellow villagers in Wealding. Panter – Downes was known for her journalism, her writing for the “New Yorker”, and there is an element of reportage in this novel, but of the most lyrical, humorous and even loving kind.

 

Stephen was away for the war, not in danger necessarily, but absent. On his return he discovers a daughter grown from baby to girl, sensible but also a dreamer. The house gave shelter to friends displaced by the war, and there were women who could cope with the oven. Now only three people live there, where there is a no longer a cook for timing and organising food, maids to serve it, or a gardener who is “good with roses”. Now there is a daily, who combats the dust and shabbiness of a large house, and an ancient man who workers of an evening with agonising slowness. This is the servant problem in practice; not the preserve of large country houses, though we will learn of a shortage there too, but the absence of those willing to work locally in a middle class home. Laura, dreamy, reminiscent of easier days, must shop for rationed food in a small town, feed her chickens and ducks, pick gooseberries, organise meals as well as try to keep the dust and spiders at bay. Laura was not equipped to deal with practical housework, a fact that her mother points out whenever she visits; she was brought up to order a household.

 

 Stephen wants the male conversation of before the war, when roses cost “a bob”, when he did not have to worry about mowing lawns. Now Laura seems a grey haired shadow of the woman her married, that he still loves, that he never seems to talk to without her worrying about housekeeping. This is Laura’s book, as she considers her life and the lives of those around her. She appreciates the tender beauty of a young man holding his niece, the sadness of a large house being emptied, the almost historic language and lives of a numerous family. She knows that she is struggling to cope, this is a pale life. The struggle to communicate this to Stephen, the problem to even understanding it herself, is the background to this beautiful summer’s day. This is a book of a wistful sadness, yet of a new beginning. Regret for past lives, but also hope for a new beginning. This is a beautiful book, and a lovely experience to read.

 

My copy of this book is a Virago Modern Classics edition, which is a modern paperback. I actually picked it up in the Persephone shop in London, on their “Books we wish we had published” table. This book is very much of a type with many of Virago’s editions, suggestive of Thirkell and others. Persephone publishes other books by Mollie Panter Downes, including short stories of both war and peace, and a collection of her wartime New Yorker pieces. This is a lovely book in every way, and I found it an excellent read for a sunny afternoon in the garden, in different times. This is a book to read today.