Lost in France

I recently read two excellent novels with a common theme - Fair Stood the Wind for France by H.E. Bates, and Sebastian Faulk's Charlotte Gray, the last volume in his French trilogy that began with the previously reviewed Birdsong.

Both novels are set in Second World War France, both, to a greater or lesser extent, follow an allied airman trying to get back home when his plane crashes when returning from a bombing raid. Both are beautifully written, and I suspect that Charlotte Gray was quite heavily influenced by the earlier Fair stood the wind for France.

Charlotte Gray's principal focus is on the eponymous heroine, a French speaker, who is drawn into the world of the Resistance following her lover's disappearance over the skies of France. Her own reasons for wanting to go to France remain obscure (or so she believes) to her British handlers, but unbeknown to her, machinations in Whitehall are going to draw her into a dangerous game of doublecross. Faulks takes the true story of inter-service rivalries and their dangerous outcomes and weaves them into a great adventure story. But while Charlotte occasionally feels a bit like a 2-dimensional character, the same cannot be said of the French and more particularly French-Jewish characters, who are lovingly portrayed. There's much to be moved by in this novel, and some wonderful use of metaphor - most notably the use of doorways and light and shadow. These could have been hackneyed, but Faulks uses them superbly.

Faulks also reintroduces many characters from earlier volumes in the French trilogy. Both Levi, the German soldier from the end of Birdsong and Hartmann, the hero of The girl at the Lion d'Or reappear at what will be the most difficult period of their lives, the transit camp at Drancy. Already invested in the lives of these characters from reading the previous volumes in the series, the reader is dragged unwillingly into the centre of the action, and confronted with what these characters have been reduced to thanks to the cruelty of their fellow man. If you think you know Charlotte Gray from the film, please read the book - much better, and more realistic than the film.

Fair stood the wind for France is more of an upfront love story. The hero, John Franklin, the pilot of a bomber, is stranded in France when his plane crashes. Seriously injured he is forced to rely on a French family initially to save his life and then to smuggle him out of the country. He falls in love with the daughter of the family, the luminous Francoise. The plot is basically a simple one with the love of the two lead characters providing a counterpoint to the darkening situation in Vichy France, with their love also providing hope for the future of a still divided Europe.

Published in 1944, H.E. Bates knew his stuff - he had served in the RAF, and the sequences with the burned out flyers is realistic. The love story could be incredibly trite - the fact that it isn't is due completely to Bates' truly brilliant writing. This novel is beautifully written. The sights and sounds and smells of rural France leap off the page, the reader is completely drawn into Bates' tale, and from the very beginning desperately wants the lovers to escape from their war-torn country. It's many years since I last read Fair stood the wind, I was shocked by its beauty, even more shocked that I had failed to remember it. Well worth re-reading; if you've never read it before I urge you to go out and buy it immediately.


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