Faulks's first novel since the extraordinary success of Birdsong is written with the same passion, power and breadth of vision. Set in England and France during the darkest days of World War II, Charlotte Gray, like Birdsong, depicts a complex love affair that is both shaped and thwarted by war.
It is 1942. London is blacked out, but France is under a greater darkness, as the occupying Nazi forces encroach ever closer in a tense waiting game. Charlotte Gray, a volatile but determined young woman, travels south from Edinburgh. Working in London, she has a brief but intense love affair with an RAF pilot. When his plane is lost over France, she contrives to go there herself to work in the Resistance and to search for him--but then is unwilling to leave as she finds that the struggle for the country's fate is intimately linked to her own battle to take control of her life.
Faulks's novel is an examination of lost paradises, politics without belief, the limits of memory, the redemptive power of art and the existence of hope beyond reason. It is also a brilliant evocation of life in Occupied France and, more significantly, a revelation of the appalling price many Frenchmen paid to survive in unoccupied, so-called Free France. As the men, women and children of Charlotte's small town prepare to meet their terrible destiny, the truth of what took place in wartime France is finally exposed.
When private lives and public events fatally collide, the roots of the characters' lives are torn up and exposed. These harrowing scenes are presented with the passion and narrative force that readers will recall from Birdsong. Charlotte Gray will attract even more readers to Faulks's remarkable fiction.
Readers of the bestseller Birdsong may hope that Faulks's third novel will furnish another mesmerizing narrative with a piercing love story and the kinds of details that vitalized his descriptions of life in the trenches during WWII. Although this novel does not, sadly, equal its predecessor in terms of seductive readability, its setting in occupied France during WWII and its depiction of the sentiments that motivated many Frenchmen to identify emotionally with the Germans rather than their longtime foe, Britain, grants the story intrinsic interest. But Faulks falters when he asks us to believe that pragmatic young Scotswoman Charlotte Gray is so transformed by her love for RAF airman Peter Gregory that she determines to parachute into France to find him after he disappears on a mission somewhere in the Free Zone. Disguising her motivation, she volunteers for the government's secret G-Section, where her uncanny talent for memorizing documents, her nerves of steel and her equanimity when parachuting into Occupied France after scant training may leave readers incredulous. Even more problematic is Charlotte's sense of transcendent mission, her mystical feeling, stressed again and again, that she has received "a call" to find Peter, and that her work for the Resistance is a "compelling urgency of personal and moral force" that will "change my life.. save my soul... and save soul as well." In evoking the mood and atmosphere of 1942-1943 France, however, Faulks provides the nuanced detail that invests the novel with authenticity, irony and pathos. Charlotte's dangerous maneuvers as she meets Resistance members and integrates herself into the village of Lavaurette, and the alternating chapters that reveal Peter's predicament, are genuinely absorbing. When Faulks introduces two small Jewish boys who are left behind in the village when their parents are deported, their heartrending situation adds tension. Yet Faulks undermines these effective scenes with a plot device that fizzles: veiled hints about Charlotte's "betrayal and violation" by her father when she was a child. Despite the psychological inconsistencies, however, in the end, it is the convincing settings--the wartime London singles scene, the old boy spy network, and daily life in an ideologically and politically divided France--that shape dramatic immediacy.