Woman at war

German paratroops in the Battle for Crete
The girl under the olive tree by Leah Fleming looked like the kind of book I would enjoy - a war-time adventure set in Crete. How could anyone who'd enjoyed Dilys Powell's An Affair of the Heart and The Villa Ariadne, and the tale of Patrick Leigh Fermor's wartime exploits Ill met by moonlight, not love it?

And I did love it, well, sort of....

Penelope George is an upper-crust British socialite about to become a debutante. But Penny craves independence, and despite a brief meeting with gorgeous Bruce Jardine, she decides to follow her elder sister to Athens, and then runs away to an archaeology school. What Penny lacks in archaeological ability, she makes up for in tenacity, and when war comes to Greece Penny finds herself left behind, and nursing close to the front-line.

As a romance, it's pretty miserable to be honest. Penny and Bruce are as wooden a pair of characters as you could hope to meet, while Rainer Brecht, the other possible love-interest isn't much better. The stage baddie of the piece owes more to Punch and Judy than anything else, and...well let's just say that characterisation isn't Fleming's strongpoint.

However, where she does score brilliantly is in her historic detail, and the adventure story itself is actually darn good. Fleming recreates the Battle for Crete, and tells it from several different angles too (no mean feat) - from the partisans to the British army on the run, from German paratroopers to the Jews of Crete. The Jewish story, a particularly sad one, is very well told; lacking in sentiment it's all the more stunning for that.

If you're looking for a great romance, I think you'll find this a bit of a let-down. However I'm not hugely into romance, and as an adventure / war-time story I think this is definitely worth a read. A captivating account of an island that refused to surrender.


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