One More Chapter | 2021 (16 September) | 383p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is June 1940 and the people of Jersey are under no illusion – the British government has announced that the island has been demilitarised, effectively leaving Jersey open to conquest. Rosie Le Maistre is one of the lucky ones. The little girl is sent away on one of the last evacuation ships, heading to her Aunt Muriel in London. Estelle, her much older sister, is left behind to work on the farm with her father and grandmother. It’s not long before the German army arrives in force, a catastrophe for the men in Estelle’s life, her father and boyfriend. Life on the island changes entirely, everything from a conversion to German currency and time to the arrival of slaves who will turn Jersey into a fortress island. But it’s not just the island that’s occupied. Soon Estelle and her grandmother have a German office, Hans Bauer, billeted on their farm. Life becomes a struggle for survival.
I’ve always been fascinated by the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War and have read several novels on the subject over the years. I was therefore drawn to An Island at War. There is definitely something of The Guernsey Literary Pie Society about An Island At War, albeit on a different island, and that’s no bad thing. This is another very human story, focusing on the impact of war and occupation on the lives of otherwise ordinary people who happened to live in the only part of Britain that was occupied.
Most of the novel tells Estelle’s story on Jersey but there are a few extracts from Rosie’s journal, written in London. I found these tantalising and would have liked much more of Rosie’s life during the Blitz. It’s clear that tumultuous things are happening to her but it’s all in the shadows and all too brief.
I liked Estelle very much and enjoyed reading about her relationships with her grand mother, their friends and with the Germans on the island. It’s mostly black and white but there is some interesting grey as Estelle and Hans struggle to reach a compromise. But it is very difficult to have sympathy for Hans when the horror of the German occupation and what is happening on the continent to Jews and people from the east is such a big part of the book. In a way, there is a conflict between the fascinating historical detail of the novel and its emotional element. The author lives on Jersey and knows its history well and that adds so much to the book. I’m not quite sure that other parts of it – Estelle’s relationships, Rosie’s experiences in London – live up to that. My main issue with the novel, though, is its ending, which is far too abrupt and unsatisfactory.
An Island at War is an enjoyable light read, which shines with the author’s knowledge about her island and its history. I learned a great deal about the little details of life under occupation. I had no idea about much of it, and that is what I’ll take away from the novel.