The girl at the Lion d'Or

The girl at the Lion d'Or is the linking novel in Sebastian Faulk's French trilogy. It's the slightest of the three both in terms of length, and in narrative. It is now over 20 years since a young French officer, Hartmann, met Stephen Wraysford (Birdsong) on the Western Front. As Germany starts to re-arm, and the politics of the left and right become polarised in France, a young girl, Anne, turns up at a bar in a sleepy French town and starts work as a waitress. She meets Hartmann, who is unhappily married, and they begin an affair.
Anne's life has been made miserable by the events of the First World War, her father was executed following the murder of an officer, who was trying to make French troops go over the top when they were on the verge of mutiny. Hartmann is rather more involved with this than Anne realises, or indeed the reader reading only The girl at the Lion d'Or knows. The occasion of his meeting with Wraysford in the earlier novel was to discuss the possibility of mutiny among French troops.

For some time the relationship goes well, and it is lovingly portrayed, as is the background to this novel - especially the growing political unrest and increasing Anti-Semitism, both of which will be vitally important in Charlotte Gray. This is portrayed as being both insidious and relentless in its efects on provincial French life. Then, for reasons that I found unclear, Hartmann breaks off the relationship with the girl, and the narrative is suspended.

This is not to say that this isn't an enjoyable read - it is, but it has the same failings as Birdsong, I just didn't get the motivation for the breakdown of the relationship, and it confused me and left me feeling unsatisfied. I do think that Faulks is at his best when he has a strong historical framework against which to place his characters. How they interact with and around that, is often more interesting than how they interact with each other, at least I think that's true of the characters who are romantically linked.

It's not that he doesn't write well about romance, he does. But where I think he falls short is in writing about the dissolution of relationships, and because the end of an affair, the way he writes about it, is so unconvincing, it can make the whole of the relationship feel insubstantial and unreal. A shame because there is much to enjoy in this book.

Slight in comparison to its fellow trilogy members it may be, but it's a vital part of the trilogy, and a good reflection of how those unsure inter-war years affected ordinary people.


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