The Ongoing Resolution of WW2: A Book Review
Though it serves as an inexhaustible fountain of real-life tales of heroism and sacrifice, the Second World War can also make a useful palette to construct insightful works of historical fiction. Back Behind Enemy Lines attempts to do just that, and succeeds.
The novel is a story about Anna, a special agent working with the French Resistance in the lead up to the Overload invasion of Normandy in the spring of 1944. It deals with her evading capture by the Germans, along with a love affair with Pierre, her fellow agent who ends up working for Nazis. The book begins on a rather ominous note:
Sixty years ago she undertook an assessment, came to a conclusion, made a decision and killed a man. That moment became the turning point of her war, the tipping point of her whole life.
But the story runs the reader through a sort of dual narrative, as the actual present time is 2006, and Anna is living alone, widowed and attempting to evade her children’s plot to put her in a nursing home. Though this may sound like the plot of an awful ABC Family movie, it actually bears a great deal of emotional weight.
Chris Bridge writes in a simple, straightforward style – but employs it in such a way that grasps the reader’s attention and evokes a plethora of historical imagery. Take for instance his description of pre-war Britain:
Before the war Anna had looked forward to love and marriage. The right marriage would cement her Englishness, make her belong. When the war broke out she had been twenty one, on the verge of true adulthood, ready to dive into life; believing that it would be like a placid lake on a summer’s day, a surface she could splash through with a slick dive and cleave apart with her front crawl.
Liberation had been in the air. Fashions had changed, dances were modern, corsets had been abandoned. Exotic black singers sang new kinds of songs. People lived lives differently. There was a book called Married Love, even a Mothers’ Clinic in Central London where you could get advice about contraception. ‘There’ll be no going back,’ people said.
Such had been the case even in the Germany of 1919-1933, until the Nazi’s came to power and instituted a convoluted set of reactionary ideas. With passages like this, Bridge captures that feeling one gets when reading Barbara Tuchman’s work on the period before the First World War, that of great optimism and promise wasted in the impending firestorm. Why do I mention Weimar? As it turns out, Bridges adds a layer of complexity to the novel, giving Anna a French (well, Swiss actually) and German background, making even her Englishness a borrowed identity. Anna’s war begins with the loss of her parents in the Blitz and the death of her Brother in Norway (aka Churchill’s Gallipoli: Part 2), thus motivating her toward the cause of revenge.
In the non-italicized, 1944 version of Anna, the reader is greeted with all manner of historical curiosities (“Why didn’t French houses ever have comfortable chairs?”), from an intelligence-gathering trip to a brothel, to the ruthlessness of those Frenchmen who collaborated with the Nazis. Though I know Bridge mostly uses this to bring further complexity into the story when he says “not all French wanted the allies to win,” as I’m not sure that was completely the case in the non-Vichy, occupation-bearing lands in Northern France.
The novel moves at a sometimes uneven pace, taking pains to provide vivid details of Anna’s cover life in France milking cows, and yet speeds through her process of falling for and becoming lovers with Pierre – which occurs as early as their third meeting. Don’t get me wrong, I realize sometimes these things move rather quickly and are even further hastened by the shadows of war, but still!
Anyway, it’s told in a convincing enough manner and in a way that the reader (assuming he or she is an adult) will understand:
All the colour was back on the trees now. Even the oak and the ash trees were stretching out with their new leaves. The countryside was a symphony of different greens.
This all goes on for awhile until one of her partners in the resistance, Marcel, is captured and Anna runs off to a safe house. When she is finally able to see Pierre again, a minor detail about the Francs he’s brought with him gives away that he’s not actually an SOE agent, and is really working for the Germans. But the invasion must go on successfully, other agents (e.g. Garbo) must not be betrayed. Her only recourse is to kill him. Then came June 6th, the invasion and an encounter with a member of the Gestapo who had only recently captured her, but decided to let her go. She ends up having to shoot him as well, if only to prevent any further compromising of her mission.
While part one of the book focuses on the war and its immediate aftermath, the second deals with 2006, and Anna’s life as a mother and grandmother. Bridge takes great pains to make Anna very likeable in the first half- confident, professional, yet still filled with all the universal longings of young adulthood. Whereas her older self, having endured her long spell of war-induced PTSD, is a significantly colder, almost gloomily stoic character – one who essentially has to pretend to like her own kids, having settled for a man after the war out of fear of loneliness. And just like in the first half, she makes a discovery that led her to realize:
She was under observation, just as she had been in the war. They were trying to take over her life, undermining her independence. They would say it was being done out of care and real concern but it was nothing of the sort. She was determined that she would be the one who made key decisions about her own life. She would let no one do it for her.
As a reader, part of me felt skeptical at the exceptional coldness at which she looks at her own kids. But then again, I’ve never been through a harrowing experience of the biggest war mankind has ever seen. And I have been to retirement homes, both the nicer floors where older folks go to live out their time in a calm, communal manner- and the linoleum-floored halls with that distinct smell that makes you think “if I had to live here, I’d probably scream like that too.”
images filled her mind like those in a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell, only this one was filled with the old, and this one was no vision. It was here. It was now. It was much more likely than capture had ever been.
It’s this reality that keeps the second part of the book from becoming a farce (though the comparison of a nursing home to Buchenwald seemed a bit much). And it comes with some of the most biting social commentary in the book:
Martyrdom is the great English vice, she suddenly decided; it enables the English to pity themselves for doing exactly what they have chosen to do anyway.
After the recruiting of some allies in Nathan and Gemma, Anna makes her way back to Normandy. Nathan and Gemma’s story would possibly merit an article of its own (not to mention a side-show with the Risco character), but sufficed to say the young couple aids her journey to France and their friendship gives Anna a much-needed sense of belonging and closure. There she gains access to the information that gives her the piece of mind that her actions during the war were correct and that she had served her country well. It also helps to mend the scars of her middle life: her loveless marriage, antipathy toward her children and her inability to speak her mind.
Still, at 90 years old, she knows how weak she is and that her only option will eventually be to end up in a home:
‘You have to go into a home.
There is no escape. Dying with dignity
is a myth. Give up, stay warm, hope
your mind founders.’
The words read like those of a suicidal black metal band (sorry, can’t help myself). It’s a statement made in the face of oblivion, both dreading it’s necessity and welcoming its gaze. Anna waits for the cold weather, goes outside with a bottle of brandy and lets the impending winter take her. It may seem like a sad thing, but at this point in her story, it’s her only path to victory.
Handling subject matter as heavy as this would prove a challenge for any author. And despite some issues with pacing and throat-clearing over details, Chris Bridge tells a thoroughly engaging story. In a sense, Anna’s story of heroism, guilt, longing, bitterness and eventual redemption is analogous to much of the west in the post-war era. By 2006, Europe had long since been rebuilt. Germany was unified once more, and with it’s military restricted to defense by its constitution (Afghanistan notwithstanding), it emerged as an economic, rather than imperialistic powerhouse. Structures had been re-built, memorials dedicated and world leaders conducting their obligatory “summits” to cheer the anniversary of particular battles.
But several ghosts still swirl across the fields of the northern European plain, the depths of the Atlantic, and the banks of the Volga. Oradour sur glane, a small town in Normandy destroyed by the Germans, who massacred the inhabitants as the allied invasion closed in, still stands in ruins. As the great BBC documentary says “A memorial…to a World at War.” Their ranks thin as the years pass, but many veterans still survive. And though those on the allied and Soviet sides can still walk with pride at the justness of their cause, nothing can wipe away the catastrophic waste reaped by such a massive conflict.
It’s a complicated story that thankfully avoids any sort of sentimental “happy ending” for Anna herself, one that would be both unsatisfying and almost condescending to her as a character. Though she comes off as rather bitter, it’s refreshing to have a 90-year old written as something other than a naively unassuming country-bumpkin who somehow forgot what being 22 was like. Perhaps British readers don’t know what I’m driving at, but in the US, it seems every character over 70 is written that way.
In the end, the positive sense of resolution comes for Gemma and Nathan, just like how its is for us in the post-war generations to take what so many earned for our sake and fulfill the happy ending that was denied to them.