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Archive for the ‘Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction’ Category

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Courtesy of  www.walterscottprize.co.uk

I have no idea, but let me tell you of my hopes.

It’s testament to the quality of contemporary historical fiction (if that is not a contradiction in terms) that this year’s Walter Scott shortlist consists of 7 titles, not the usual 6.  So as the judges were having problems at the shortlist stage, how are they going to determine the winner?  Because there’s no easily separating the five I’ve read.  Deliberations could go something like this:

Sebastian Barry’s already won once, and Days Without End is a much better novel, so he deserves to win it again!

Rose Tremain’s historical novels have won every other prize going. It’s about time she won this one. Let’s declare The Gustav Sonata the winner!

It’s a travesty that Hannah Kent’s first novel wasn’t even shortlisted.  Let’s make up for that now by declaring The Good People the winner!

There’s nothing more powerful that showing the impact of historical events through the microcosm of an individual’s experience.  Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is our winner.

Our previous winners contain huge amounts of misery and political intrigue. Let’s have a laugh for a change.  The prize goes to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill!

I obviously can’t advance any arguments (tongue-in-cheek or otherwise) for The Vanishing Futurist and Mothering Sunday, except that the former is in my TBR and the latter is not.

For me, it is a question of which novel is capable of stealing the prize from Sebastian Barry, whose novel has already beaten Francis Spufford to the Costa Novel of the Year Award, and contains awe-inspiring passages of intense luminosity. And yet my doubts as to historical authenticity linger.  The same is true of Spufford’s Golden Hill, which also contains improbable plot twists, but what can you expect from a novel that is primarily a brilliant homage to the 18th-century picaresque novel?  And yet it provides a detailed and spiritual portrait of New York, when it was just a small town.

imageI suspect either Barry or Spufford – if the judges decide to go for the highly original choice –  will take the prize, but, having just finished The Good People, I’m willing Hannah Kent to win.  In short, her reimagining of the events leading up to the tragic death of 4-year old Michael Kelliher in the pre-famine rural Ireland of 1826 is everything I want my historical fiction to be. I need a full interpretation of how things came to be within the context of prevailing societal norms, taboos, beliefs and superstitions.  Kent excels at writing into the gaps of history here – court records tell what happened, not why the two women accused of murdering the child acted as they did.  I was fascinated by the effective and the non-effective herbal remedies at the heart of this novel, and by the conflict between Christianity and pagan folklore. (And I railed at both from time to time.)  The cadence and lilt of Kent’s prose – at times just as lyrical as Barry’s – held me in that time and place. I forgot my own surroundings.  I could feel the cold, hear the fires crackling, empathise with the despair, even as I refused to condone the behaviour.  And I watched as first an individual woman, then an entire town lost their rational minds.  With only hints as to true nature of Michael  Kelliher’s condition, The Good People was puzzling, terrifying, emotional amd utterly absorbing. It well deserves the accolade I hope it will receive tonight.

P.S Even if the judges don’t agree with me on this, they must surely grant that the UK hardback is the most beautiful on the shortlist. From the embossed golden leaf on the cover to the swoonsworthy deckled edges, ’tis an absolute joy to behold and read.

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Both novels are shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and both focus almost entirely on the experiences of their  main protagonist as well as paying homage to literary history. Apart from that, they are as different as different can be.

Jo Baker’s second novel, A Country Road, A Tree, follows the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, from Ireland to France, where he chose to stay during the Nazi Occupation, forced eventually to flee Paris and go underground when he became involved with the French Resistance.  Not for Beckett the easy option – he could have sat the war out in neutral Ireland in safety, had he so chosen.  But he returned to France to his partner, Suzanne and remained there until the end of the war. It is commonly accepted that these are the years that formed the writer. Although Beckett published prior to the war, his works thereafter are those which Earned his reputation as a modernist master.

Baker has chosen to chart these formative experiences in third-person present tense.  Thus the reader walks, runs, flees with Beckett through his trials. I’ll admit this didn’t work for me in the early pages, the Irish pages, if you will, which I found slow and stultifying – much as Beckett found his Irish village in real life!  (Mission accomplished then, writer!)  Following the outbreak of war, life becomes much more intense as Beckett and Suzanne are forced to flee the Gestapo to seek sanctuary in the Zone Libre.  The hardships, deprivations and dangers on the road accumulate into a pulse-raising read and, at one point, survival depends on finding a meeting point on a country road, by a tree.  (Just thinking about the chances of waiting by the wrong tree, makes my blood run cold.) When they do find a safe-ish haven, Beckett jeopardises it through his incapacity to resist more resistance work.

Suzanne’s frustrations are entirely understandable – by this time they have been through hell.  She is worn out with stress and grief.  Beckett is able to detach/distract himself from everyday realities (fatigue, hunger, cold, distress at the ever-increasing loss of friends) through his writing, Suzanne has no such luxury.  Their relationship becomes strained, and it appears that another choice of Beckett’s at the end of the war might just be the end of them.

The novel ends, however in January 1946, with the words This is where it begins. Beckett is sitting down to distill his experiences into his first post-war work. His writing is about to free itself from its pre-war influences, including that of James Joyce.  Just like the winter coat that Joyce gave Beckett, and which kept him alive during his time of tribulation, Joyce’s exuberance and linguistic excesses have had their day.  Now that he is wearing a coat of his own, Beckett is about to become his own writer.

The cover of Francis Spufford’s debut, Golden Hill, gives a good indication of what is to follow.  Gentleman in 18th century garb fleeing over the rooftops, with a larger than life female overseeing the action. And indeed that is the era to which Spufford transports us; his plot a homage to the picaresque tales of Henry Fielding, albeit with Fielding’s wordiness pared down – somewhat – for 21st century readership.

There’s only one word to describe this novel – it is a riot!

It’s 1746 and Mr Smith arrives in New York with a promissory note for 1000 dollars.  But his arrival is unexpected and the merchant who is to cash the note is suspicious, particularly as Smith refuses to give any details regarding the nature of his business. He agrees to wait for six weeks for his money – it’s not a hardship, he has 4 golden guineas to tide him over.

The novel follows the course of those six weeks, which become a time that Smith is unlikely ever to want to repeat.  Firstly he is robbed, forcing him to live on his wits, although they are not the sharpest a fictional hero ever possessed.  Secondly, thirdly and fourthly – suffice, he suffers an extraordinary conspiracy of circumstance, adventure and tragedy, and his life is endangered more than once.

He also falls in love with Tabitha, the Dutch merchant’s daughter, a spirited girl though entirely jaundiced by the limited options available to her.  This manifests itself in her cruelty to others, her biting tongue and her bad temper.  And yet this world is not without its opportunities.  Smith understands that she is not the proverbial bird in a cage.  She is the bird and the cage. Will she find the courge to fly from the cage of her own making?

There’s honestly never a quiet moment as Smith negotiates his way through post-colonial New York, never able to make a move (good or ill-advised) without the whole village (for New York was still that small at the time) knowing of it, and celebrating or shunning him in the morning.  I’m making a huge assumption here in that I believe Smith’s tale to be entirely fictional, the historical detail of Spufford’s novel consisting of his almost Hogarthian portrait of the society of that time.  It’s meticulous and unflinching.  But never dull.  How can it be when Spufford uses card games for high stakes, steamy encounters with buxom actresses and duels to advance the plot?

There is a more serious nature to Smith’s business, but he keeps his secret – secrets, actually – until the very end, thereby obtaining the last laugh. And Tabitha? Well the girl, who wants more than anything else to control the plot,  also plays a hidden role in all of this.  It’s a brilliant twist and that’s all I’m saying.


Time now for a tough decision as these are both very fine novels.

I loved the immediacy and the humanity of A Country Road, A Tree, the present tense finally winning though and I felt all the anxieties of Beckett and Suzanne as they sought to survive in a hostile world.  I was in that world with them.  The novel also taught me things I didn’t know, About Beckett, in particular, and I may now consider reading him.

I never felt that emotional connection to Golden Hill.  Whether that was because I was reading an e-book, I can’t say, but I was always an observer.  And yet, writing this review, looking beneath the surface of the entertaining plot, I begin to see other literary merits adding to the cleverness of an already clever novel.

So, on the basis that my head almost always rules over my heart, Spufford advances to the next round of my tournament.

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I am a football widow.  I am OK with that.  With the Euros running from 10.06.2016-10.07.2016 my free time is my own, and I haven’t got a minute to spare!

What Lizzy did

I’ve been shadowing the Walter Scott Prize and last weekend saw me go to the Borders Book Festival to hear the shortlistees and attend the prize giving.  I am absolutely delighted that my favourite won!  This tends to suggest that this year’s judges and I have a lot in common.  Here’s Simon Mawer at his moment of victory.  (Rather grainy photo, taken with mobile phone from back of marquee.)

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That was Saturday evening, but that was half way through my long weekend and  a lot of water had flowed underneath the bridge by then.  A lot – I got soaked as I wandered through the grounds of Abbotsford – home of Sir Walter Scott – on Friday afternoon.  OK so that’s an occupational hazard in Scotland and I had the survival kit – raincoat and prerequisite brolly, which are always, but ALWAYS kept in the car boot.  It wasn’t windy and and it was warm.  All in all it was a wonderful afternoon.  Scott had a lovely home and a magnificent library.  Of course, having lost his money in the financial crash of 1825, he had to work his butt off to keep his creditors at bay and keep his hands on Abbotsford.  But the fact that he paid back 50% of his debt (approx 5 million pounds in today’s money) by the time of his death in 1832 speaks volumes for the man.

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The two Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize events were taking place in Melrose on Saturday afternoon/Saturday evening, so the morning was mine to do as I pleased.  A stroll into Melrose along the banks of the River Tweed in SUNSHINE was a rare and glorious treat.  Saturday 18th June coincided with the start of Independent Book Shop Week and, being in Melrose, gave me the opportunity to start a #bookshopcrawl to celebrate.  (Usually I don’t – home being 40+ miles away from an independent book shop.)

Cue visit to Masons of Melrose – a small, but classy shop, beautifully designed to take advantage of every square foot of space.  When you walk in, you might be forgiven for wondering where you are.  The candelabra says this shop has aspirations beyond its square footage!  Floor to ceiling bookshelves positioned around a central counter, replete with greetings cards of the kind that enticed me to spend a small fortune, and keyrings that I now regret having left behind, the wall-to-ceiling book shelves are filled with a judiciously curated selection of books.  Off the main area there a little cubby hole for the kids too. Kids will also love the bookshelf in the main area (although parents might not) stuffed with cuddly toys …..

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As I was making my purchases, and asking for permission to take the photos you now see, the lady at the counter recommended a book shop 1o miles down the road in St Boswells.  I’d never heard of St  Boswells, never mind the Main Street Trading Company, but I set out on Sunday morning to investigate ….

Well,  I fell in love.

A gruffalo, a book burrow for kids to listen to audio books (and adults, including Lizzy to shamelessly misappropriate for a photo opportunity), a book bag with matching note book to die for,  a selection of books for which overdrafts were created, and a cafe with a strong brew to calm my fluttering heart, it’s no wonder the place was heaving …. on a Sunday morning.  Unfortunately (or should that read thankfully?) Main Street Trading Company is located 73 miles from home.  It cannot be my new local (unless I move to St Boswells …..)

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Following this (expensive) reconnaissance mission,  it was time to cross the border into England.  Heading for Alnwick (pronounced Annick) in Northumberland, I was on my way to the mythical Barter Books.  A busy place in a converted railway station, I wouldn’t have gone, had I known about the nightmarish car park .  (I am a nervous driver, unused to busy single-track car parks …).  Regardless, the pain of parking was rewarded once I entered this cornucopia of used books.  It is massive, and I decided to walk the periphery and circle inwards to get my bearings.  This is the view once you get to the far side.

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Where to start and how to survive this overload of 300,000 potential acquisitions?  With rules – very strict rules.  No novels (I have more than enough in the TBR) and books must be as new.  90 minutes after entry, and having bartered a bag of books, I walked away with 3 non-fiction titles for my reference library.  (Folio Society edition of The Thrty Years War, biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, Taschen Art Volume on Wiliam Morris.) They cost me a fiver.   I am a happy bunny and I may just brave the nightmare parking once more.

Because I will return to Alnwick.  If only to return to my first literary crush …. Hotspur!

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King Henry IV Part One – O-level English text.  I was sweet16 and bedazzled by Henry Percy. Flawed hero of the piece … or perhaps even tragic hero?  Certainly not villain. My English teacher organised a debate and was worried I might win it! I didn’t – my classmates had more sense – but here I am 4 decades later, meeting my hot-headed Hotspur in the metal in the grounds of Alnwick Castle for the first, but not the last time.  Others may return to the site of Harry Potter’s quidditch tournaments or the site of Downtown Abbey’s 2014 Christmas Special, but Hotspur’s the man for me!

What Lizzy Will Do

This was the trip that kept on giving, and you might think that I’ll start reading my new acquisitions.  Not a bit of it, because today was the day Edinburgh Book Festival tickets went on sale. So now I’ll got an immediate baker’s dozen TBR, including Don Quixote!  Add in a couple of (short) titles to cater for Spanish Literature Month in July and the odd bit of whimsy, and I might successfully complete a #TBR20.  (Possibly at the 9th attempt so far this year.)

P.S I’m in dire need of more free time.  Could someone extend the Euros 2016 beyond 10.07.2016?

 

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Marian Sutro is a British operative working with the French resistance.  In 1944 she is betrayed and finds herself in Ravensbruck concentration camp; an experience she barely survives – No longer the confident woman she had been.  Following the war, she tries to return to normal life, but there are the Nazi War Trials to endure.   She marries a – shall we say – compromise candidate, but as she regains her spirit, she finds life in the early 50’s too humdrum.  The Cold War needs to be fought, and, gradually she is sucked back into the life of an intelligence agent.  However, deeply concerned at the imbalance of power resulting from the creation of the atom bomb, the scene is set for Marian to turn traitor in the name of peace.

When I read Mawer’s Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room, I had reservations about both structure and characterisation.  No such issues here.   I found the psychological portrait of Marian’s recovery fascinating.  Her wartime experiences are pivotal but appear mostly in – deeply disturbing – flashback.  She is walking a tightrope – struggling to maintain her balance in a world that considers her a heroine, that wants her to relive the nightmare giving evidence at the war trials, when all she wants is to bury her past and move on.  When she does so, her past catches up with her and seemingly casual acquaintances attain much deeper significance.

There is, of course, also the political tightrope at the heart of events.  This is the Cold War era before MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and, within its pages Mawer explores the rationale of those who were willing to pass scientific secrets to the Russians.  This is where the pace picks up, especially as Marian becomes involved in a honey trap à deux.  Highly immersive reading. Impossible to predict the outcome.

But who has all the insider information, because it’s made clear that this information is not contained in Marian’s official papers.  A framework device, for which I’m a complete sucker (blame Theodor Storm) takes care of that.

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Having completed my reading of the entire 2016 shortlist, I’m now faced with a decision.  To which novel should I award my shadow prize?  Mrs Engels was in prime position until I read Tightrope, and now I’m torn.  Given the scarcity of historical source material, McCrae’s Lizzie Burns is a finer feat of literary imagination.  Yet Mawer’s novel, set just a handful of years before I was born, is meticulous in its historical detail, and  has made me ponder the origins of the MAD world I was born into more than I have ever done before.  I need to go away and argue with myself for a few days.  Hopefully I’ll come to a decision before the official announcement on Saturday afternoon.

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Now if I were handing out a prize for most entertaining narrator on this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, Lizzie Burns, protagonist and narrator of Mrs Engels, would win hands down.  She’s a real character.  How’s this for an opener ….

No one understands men more than the women they don’t marry and my own opinion – beknown only to God – is that the difference between one man and another doesn’t amount to much.  It’s no matter what line he’s in or which ideas he follows, whether he is sweet-tempered or ready-witted, a dab at one business or the next, for there isn’t so much in any of that, and you won’t find a man that hasn’t something against him.  What matters over and above the contents of his character – what makes the difference between sad and happy straits for she who must put her life into his keeping  – is the mint that jingles in his pockets.  In the final reckoning, the good and the bad come to an even naught, and the only thing left to recommend him is his money.

Her outlook, which when you consider that Lizzie, a working-class Irish girl, is the unmarried Mrs Engels of the title, shacked up with the exceedingly rich, cotton-mill owning Mr Friedrich Engels but still pining for her poor former Irish lover, explains a lot.  (Even if it doesn’t explain her ongoing desire for the latter given the legacy of that relationship.)  The further into the novel we go, the more unconventional and complex Lizzie’s domestic arrangements become.  Without the wedding ring, there is only so much that Lizzie can do in Victorian society, but she is a force to reckon with, a pillar of strength for Engels, the smoother of many obstacles and embarrassments.  Yet she has to put up with Karl Marx, a rival who takes all of Friedrich’s time and a lot of his money.  Worse still, his wife, Jenny, towards whom she feels a natural antipathy, not unrelated to the history of Lizzie’s sister, Mary, Lizzie’s predecessor to Engels’s affections.  But put up with her she must, and also with Engels’s sometimes high-handed approach, if she wants to continue enjoying his wealth in their “grand” house in Primrose Hill.  Otherwise it’s back to the Manchester slums for her.

Through her not-so-convinced eyes we see the birth of Marxism.  And it’s a revelation, I must say.  The portraits of Marx and Engels as political theorists are not always flattering, and Jenny Marx comes across in places as Mrs Bennett reincarnated.  Nor are the French comunards, displaced by the failure of their 1871 uprising,  and seeking refuge in London, a sympathetic crowd. Fine clothes and wine, their particular weaknesses.

Shifting between the present life in Primrose Hill and her earlier impoverished life in the Manchester factory, Lizzie’s narrative is always honest, graphic, and in places very down to earth.  Even the pragmatist she accepts some real blows with a shrug of her shoulders.  I suspect the reigniting of the affair with her Irish pro-Fenian lover is fuelled more by rebellion than by affection.

How much of Lizzie is the real woman?  Impossible to say because the real Lizzie Burns was illiterate, and so has left no written records.  Engels, of course, had other things to write about other than his partner who died at 40 and who he refused to marry until she lay on her death bed. (But at least he made an honest woman of her in the end.)  McCrea has, therefore, written into the gaps of the historical record, and not only created a credible  record of what might be true but an absorbing novel to boot.

Mrs Engels was my fourth read from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, and the first I thought would make a worthy winner.  Will book 5 A Place Called Winter or book 6 Tightrope snatch the shadow trophy from McCrae’s hands?  All to be revealed before Saturday’s official award ceremony …….

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

This is the title on the shortlist I was anticipating the most.  Billed as the companion piece to Any Human Heart and blurbed as the best thing Boyd has ever written, it had a lot to live up to, particularly as Any Human Heart is IMO a masterpiece.

Amory Clay is the female counterpart to Logan Mountstewart.  She’s born in 1908 and dies in 1983, so sees most of the C20th.  Her profession as photographer is useful.   It allows Boyd to move her around the globe to many of the C20th hotspots.  She starts off as a society photographer with her uncle, who advises her to create a scandal to make her name known.  Cue move to the louche Berlin of the 1930s.  The resulting pictures are too effective.  Following an obscenity trial, her reputation is in shatters.  To restart her career, she needs to move to the States,  sponsored by the man destined to become her employer, lover and long-term protector.  There follow sojourns in France during WWII as a rather uncourageous war photographer, in Scotland as part of the landed gentry during the 1950s, another stint as a war photographer during Vietnam, after which her final years are spent living alone with her dog back on the West Coast of Scotland.

There’s a lot happening on this world stage, and Amory Clay’s personal life is just as eventful! As if dalliances with her married employer and a French writer, marriage with a Scottish Lord were not enough, Amory’s life still has time for final adventure chasing after her AWOL daughter to an American commune. At 447 pages, this is one of the longest novels of the Walter Scott Shortlist, and it is also the quickest read.

Boyd loves to mix his books with other art forms and so here the chosen medium is photography. Scattered among the text are photographs, purporting to be those taken by Amory Clay. Now I haven’t heard Boyd speak, nor have I read any interviews about this novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear of him finding a cache of unaccredited (and not always brilliant) photographs around which he has seamlessly woven his tale.  (Aaah, look what I just found.)

A key question for the success of this novel is whether Amory Clay feels authentic. She does in most things:  discovery of the carnal coinciding with the slackening of moral restraint in the C20th,  lack of courage at the front line and her honesty about it,  falling for men who are not emotionally the best choice, the  sometimes distant relationship with her daughters. Her forgiveness of her father stretched my credulity somewhat (No hints here, it’s a major plot feature.) I particularly enjoyed her analysis of light.

 I watched the day slip into night, noting the wondrous tonal transformations of the sunset on its dimmer switch, how blood-orange can shade imperceptibly into ice-blue on the knife-edge of the horizon ….

Much to enjoy, therefore, but nothing that had me as a reader firing on all cylinders. Why ever not? Let me be clear. Sweet Caress is a good novel and a vast improvement on the last Boyd I read. (In fact, Waiting for Sunrise had me thinking that I wouldn’t bother reading any more.) But I had been led to expect something on a par with Any Human Heart and so I was waiting for the sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm of the dog food moment. It was perhaps unfair of me to do so.

 

 

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize

And so to the finale of Allan Massie’s atmospheric crime quartet set in Vichy France. (Parts 1 and 2 are reviewed here, Part 3 here.). It is the early summer of 1944. The Germans have lost the war and the allied invasion is expected, eagerly or with apprehension depending on the choices made during the Occupation. For Superintendent Lannes the end can’t come quickly enough, even though his family will suffer one way or the other, given that one son is happily working for Vichy France, the other has joined the free French and his daughter has fallen in love with a fully-fledged German sympathiser, now fighting in Hitler’s  army. For himself, Lannes just wants to be able to work again, free from political interference. At the beginning of this novel, however, he is suspended at the order of the Germans – he’s paying the price for doing the morally right thing in the previous novel.

But he is not bitter. He understands that his boss Schnyder was simply being expedient “determined to survive, however things turned out.” He is suffering from ennui, however, and so when he is approached by the Count of St. Hilaire to investigate the disappearance of his grand-niece, he accepts. The case brings him into contact with the real bogey man of the quartet, the lawyer Labiche. Throughout the quartet Lannes has crossed swords with Labiche multiple times, and with the end of the Occupation in sight, Lannes senses his chance for revenge.

Continuing to tread the streets of Bordeaux, Lannes meets the circle of friends and adversaries that have populated the previous three novels, and I do think that this may be confusing to those coming to End Games without prior knowledge. This is one series where I would advise starting at Book One. That way the jumps to the parallel lives of Lannes’s sons and Michel, his daughter’s lover, will not disconcert. Nor will their purpose. Not a single one of them comes out of the other side with their ideals intact ….

… and even Lannes, desperate to be free from intolerable political pressures, has to recognise that the time has not yet come. Now that the Boches have gone, justice will have new masters. In the words of Judge Bracal:

For four years the prevailing wind has come from Vichy. Now the wind has shifted. It blows with the Resistance, and … for weeks and perhaps months to come, the Law will be whatever the Resistance says it is.

I have followed Lannes during the dark years trying to uphold justice in the face of Vichy/Nazi law. He has at least tried to maintain his own integrity. He has not always succeeded. Finding now that similar struggles will continue through the Expiation and beyond,  he is finally embittered and filled with hatred for the hypocrises of his fellow countrymen.  Rising above it all is sometimes an impossible task.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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