This is a remarkably interesting book. But rather than being the story of a War Heroine - as one might imagine from the cover - it’s the story of a vulnerable and flawed individual – the author’s English aunt – who finds herself stranded in France at the outbreak of the second world war and then – in effect – decides to stay and make shift as best she can right through the German occupation. That “best she can” involves a great deal of sleeping with the enemy.
It’s also a story of the peculiar kinds of neglect which the English upper middle classes were – and probably still are – capable of inflicting on their children. The children are not abused in the usual ways, so that it is harder for them to pin point exactly what is wrong with their upbringing, but they are neglected to an extent and in ways which leaves them with lifelong handicaps and often enough with leanings towards promiscuity, alcoholism and suicide. It’s all here in Nicholas Shakespeare’s book. One should never underestimate the capacity for obtuse selfishness in educated, polite, gregarious and worldly parents.
Along the way, we learn a lot about some remarkable people. I never knew, for example, that Bunuel's Belle de Jour was based on a novel published way back in 1928, nor that the author - Joseph Kessel - was the quite extraordinary figure who appears in these pages.
A successful novelist and biographer, Shakespeare has started out with the various writings which his aunt left behind at her death and then excavated the historical truth in public archives and in interviews with the few who still survive. The concluding and entirely unexpected “Afterword” is a brilliant coup de théâtre and brought tears to my eyes.
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