This is an absorbing story written in beautiful, evocative prose with characters that are occasionally frustrating but all the more realistic for it. Set during World War II, the story takes us from the last day that Guernsey Islanders could evacuate for London before the arrival of the Germans in June, 1940, through all of the war, to an epilogue in 1946.
Vivienne de la Mare lives with her two children, Blanche, 14, and Millie, 4, in a lovely isolated home on the island. Her widowed mother-in-law Evelyn lives with them also. Vivienne’s husband Eugene has gone to war, but he had been gone in most senses before that; they had never truly been in love, and in any event had not had any sexual relations since Millie was conceived. Vivienne knows that Eugene has had a mistress.
When the Germans come, four German soldiers move into the deserted house next door. After a long struggle against her needs and her obvious attraction, Vivienne begins a relationship with one of them, Gunther Lehmann. Gunther too has a marriage back home in Germany that is inadequate in many ways, and Vivienne can sense his loneliness before they even speak. Gunther finds in Vivienne the love he never expected to have, and releases in her a passion that she only dreamed about. But it is an awkward situation. Vivienne feels like a traitor, and comes to loathe the behavior of the Germans wearing Nazi uniforms who supervise the slave laborers on the island. She never knows how much Gunther participates or knows about it; he prefers to leave all talk of the war outside of her door. She doesn’t understand how so much good and evil can coexist in the same universe.
Somewhat by accident and reluctantly, Vivienne becomes involved in the underground resistance on the island. She does this during the day, and makes love to a German at night. It is tearing Vivienne apart, and something has to give. It finally does, in the senseless way that so often happens in wartime.
Discussion: Complex issues raised by this story dilute the black and white of war with shades of gray that muddy any obvious judgments. The most salient issue is the tendency to lump all persons from an enemy nation into one category, refusing to consider that individuals vary, even in wartime. Part of the tragedy in this story is not only what war does to both the victims and the perpetrators, but that it leads to classifying all sorts of human beings with different interests and pasts and presents into only either victims or perpetrators.
The inability to communicate is another big problem for Vivienne and Gunther, and it is compounded by the fact that they are on two different sides of the war. Does love supplant loyalty to one’s country when under occupation? Is love even real in such circumstances, or is it a response to the fear and adrenaline and heightened senses of wartime?
But the biggest issue has nothing really to do with war at all, although the war affects it, and it is about trusting someone you love. Vivienne found she could not trust the love of her mother, who died when she was three, nor that of her husband, and she never learned how to give that trust to anyone else. As Billy Joel wrote, in the song “A Matter of Trust” that could have come from the lips of Gunther:
“It’s hard when you’re always afraid
You just recover when another belief is betrayed
So break my heart if you must
It’s a matter of trust
I’m sure you’re aware love
We’ve both had our share of
Believing too long
When the whole situation was wrong
Some love is just a lie of the soul
A constant battle for the ultimate state of control
After you’ve heard lie upon lie
There can hardly be a question of why
Whatever you choose
I won’t hold back anything
And I’ll walk a way a fool or a king”
But trust, trust is harder for Vivienne than questions of war and peace, or of good and evil. Ultimately, she must decide if she can take a chance on love. Her decision will haunt you long after you close the last page of this memorable book.
Evaluation: This book is really an excellent exposé of both the overt, obvious horrors of war, and the little everyday ones, that can rip up peoples’ hearts and lives, or make them stronger from the unexpected dawns that always come even after the darkest nights.
Published by Hyperion & Voice, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2011