It was quite a while ago that I finished reading Charlotte Gray but, sadly, I was away and didn’t have my laptop with me and, since then, work and everyday life have somewhat taken over. So it is that I find myself, nearly three weeks later, finally sitting down to write my review.
I read this book pretty quickly (for me!) and very much enjoyed it. As I said in my last post, I tried reading Charlotte Gray once before – when I was about fifteen years old. I never finished it. I think I was, perhaps, too young and immaturely drawn into reading a book whose heroine shared my own name. Charlotte Gray is not a book for the idle reader who happens across it by coincidence. It has a very specific topic and is not what I would call a feel-good read. It’s heavy going and deals with some weighty subjects.
At eighteen, just a few years after I failed to complete Charlotte Gray, I found myself studying another of Faulks’ novels set in France: Birdsong. I studied Birdsong as part of my A level English syllabus and found it equally – if not more – harrowing a read as Charlotte Gray. Both of Faulks’ novels deal with the subject of war. In Birdsong Faulks explores life in the trenches during the First World War and in Charlotte Gray we learn more about the Second World War from the perspective of the French and English undercover resistance efforts in Vichy France.
I found Charlotte Gray unusual as it is narrated largely from the perspective of a woman. I find it interesting that Faulks chose this narrative perspective for a war story. War is largely the dominion of men, and was even more so in 1942 when Charlotte Gray begins than it is today. Charlotte is an intriguing heroine. An ordinary girl who flings herself into extraordinary circumstances. I have to say I was a little disappointed that Charlotte’s main motivation for her bravery in France was due to a man, and her, somewhat immature, ideas about love and relationships. Certainly Charlotte Gray does some amazingly brave and patriotic things, but I couldn’t help thinking, “she’s only doing it for that sap, Peter Gregory”. I do realise, however, that Faulks’ writing is probably more true-to-life, than if Charlotte had been a ballsy, go get ’em, war heroine. The reality of war was probably far less glamorous and people far less confident than our latter-day Hollywood ideals make us believe. The men and women who found themselves fighting for their cause were probably driven by much simpler and more everyday motivations than an over-arching patriotism. So perhaps I have no right to be disappointed that Charlotte went to France because of her love for Peter Gregory, maybe that’s how it would’ve been. I guess it’s more inspiring to fight for those we love than for a blurred, vague concept of King and country.
Charlotte Gray tells a story that most of us, I think, are unaware of. We all know about the fighter pilots, the strategists, the foot soldiers. I have to say
that prior to reading Charlotte Gray I didn’t know much about the occupation of France or about the French resistance. I knew even less about the brave men and women who were parachuted into France as couriers and spies – with little more than a cyanide pill and their wits to keep them from being discovered. I found the varying French reaction to the Vichy government another interesting element of the book. During her time in France, Charlotte encounters a diverse range of French citizens, some proud that their country collaborated with the Germans and some ashamed to be French because of that same collaboration.
As I mentioned earlier, Charlotte Gray is certainly not a happy-go-lucky beach read. The story deals with some very traumatic and distressing events. Faulks deals with these events in unexpected ways – always from surprising perspectives and often in a way that makes them more tangible and real. Faulks’ characters are well-drawn and his characterisation is unusual. Faulks often uses the technique of telling us about the objects that surround a character – the things on their desk, the items in their bags – and it is through these objects that we come to form our ideas about a character and what their life has been, and is, like. Faulks’ novel also allows us to glimpse how people can form unusual relationships under extreme circumstances. War certainly seems to bring out relationships that would otherwise never even begin. From Charlotte’s relationship with Levade to Peter Gregory’s relationship with Nancy, an American woman living in wartime France. The story also highlights how there are many different sorts of bravery and that a war hero doesn’t necessarily wear a uniform or receive a medal.
I would recommend Charlotte Gray to others, particularly if they are interested in the Second World War and the ordinary people who did extraordinary things in their otherwise ordinary lives. The novel contains some very sad moments and really highlights our ability to live on despite experiencing harrowing times and devastating events. It’s an eye-opening and engaging story and is well worth reading.
I move on to another modern novel, J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for the adult market, I have high hopes for this book.