"Charlotte Gray," by Sebastian Faulks. Random House. 432 pages. $24.95.
Charlotte Gray" is a page-turner for grown-ups, a novel with the rich detail of a great historical narrative. Eloquent and moving, it re-creates a time and a place and populates its world with characters as genuine as they are extraordinary.
Sebastian Faulks' follow-up to "Birdsong," which was set in World War I, is an account of the second world war that very much stresses the legacy of the first. The title character is a young, self-possessed Scottish woman whose instinctive patriotism is put to the test when she's dropped into German-occupied France as an undercover courier for the British.
Intelligent and resolute, she has a weakness that is also her strength -- a consuming love for an English airman. Their brief and intense affair before they are separated by fate becomes symbolically huge in each of their lives, as they continually test the limits of their mortality.
Charlotte finds herself embroiled in the French resistance in a country in which evil has the banal and careworn face of the bourgeoisie. Their casual detestation of the Jews who are their neighbors and blind acceptance of the morally bankrupt Vichy government result in the deportation of untold numbers of Frenchmen to concentration camps.
Faulks makes the situation painfully immediate with two subplots: one of a Catholic painter of Jewish descent and another of two little boys orphaned by the arrest and removal of their parents. To know the boys may join a train full of trusting children sent to their deaths is to be filled with tension and horror, because the events behind the fiction are, of course, true.
In a tale of such obvious import, it's difficult to avoid preaching. Occasionally, a few lines of Faulks' dialogue suddenly group themselves into an unlikely speech. But most of the time, he is writing in perfect pitch; he manages to take perhaps the most horrific story of this or any century and make it personal. He re-creates a world of deprivation and deception, of courage and passion and fear, that seems startlingly real.
His descriptions are meticulous, whether of thin wartime food ("brie which had reached the point of liquefaction and some eggs she had made into an omelette with a few mean but pungent shavings of truffle") or a bathroom ("The big cylinder above the bath roared like a bomber on take-off, but the scalding water came only at a trickle down its narrow pipe").
Though the book ends on a satisfying note, it's also a vaguely uneasy one that suggests that the vital lives of the survivors, even as they are beginning, belong to the past. This reader was left with the feeling that, because the happy lives disappear along with the unhappy ones, every moment matters, whether a character is falling into the arms of a lover or resisting a regime set on genocide. That message hums quietly throughout the story, underlining its urgency and making it more of a cautionary tale about the next great war than the last.
Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Maryland Poetry Review, the Miami Herald, Premiere and elsewhere.
Pub Date: 02/07/99