There have been quite a few novels telling the story of World War II female British agents dropped into France, and their resistance fighter counterparts, and they often make good reading. It was a time for women getting to do some gutsy jobs, involving danger and cunning – not the usual ‘keep the home fires burning’ roles they were often accustomed to. But what about the earlier war? Kate Quinn puts us in the picture with one particular network run by Alice Dubois (real name Louise de Bettignies) in German occupied France during the First World War.
Although The Alice Network is partly written through the eyes of a fictitious character – Evelyn Gardiner, a British spy (code name Marguerite Le Francois) – Dubois and her network of spies are also incorporated into the story. We first meet Eve years later as an ageing drunk with deformed hands, a bad temper and a tendency to wave her Luger around, firing off a round when startled.
It’s an evening in 1947 when nineteen-year-old New Yorker, Charlie St. Clair, hammers on Eve’s door demanding to be let in. It’s pouring with rain, and Charlie has escaped her mother during a visit to Europe for a completely different purpose. Charlie is determined to track down a long lost French cousin, Rose, angry that no one has found out what happened to Rose in the recent war. Without a death certificate or witness statement, she still hopes Rose is alive. Eve, working at a bureau that helped locate refugees, had corresponded with Charlie’s father about Rose giving no reason for hope.
That’s not the only problem for Charlie – she’s three month’s pregnant and was supposed to be going to a clinic for an abortion. But Charlie needs to track down Rose before it’s too late and take control of her own life. Eve is set to turn Charlie out into the street, but a new lead sparks her curiosity. Before long they form an unlikely alliance, heading to France with Eve’s Scottish hired help, Finn Kilgore, in his ageing Lagonda. Finn also has his own war story, which eventually emerges, but the narrative is mostly Eve’s and Charlie’s, flipping between WWI and 1947 to fill us in on the story of the Alice Network, and Charlie’s journey of discovery.
This is a nicely paced novel. The story of Eve’s war is a grim one, unfolding to reveal how women spies picked up gems of information about troop movements and planned attacks. Eve, with her stutter, looks naive and youthful, but as a waitress in the only decent restaurant in Lille, is an ideal spy with her ease in both French and German. There’s lots of tension here and the sudden switches to Charlie’s story give a bit of light relief. Although her’s is a sad story too, there’s a bit more fun in the way the three travellers interact and develop a grudging respect for each other. Things simmer between them until the past finally catches up with the present and everything comes to a dramatic finish.
I enjoyed the novel immensely as an escapist read, but was also really interested to learn more about the spy-ring run by Alice Dubois and the fate of those who were captured. Remembering that this is a time before women had the vote in Britain, it’s remarkable how these female agents were allowed to take on dangerous missions behind enemy lines. The execution of Edith Cavell, a nurse shot for aiding the escape of Allied soldiers, is a stark reminder that this wasn’t a game.
The characters of our three main players are both interesting and engaging, and the cliff-hanger chapter endings keep you racing through the story. It’s not surprising this novel has been extremely popular and well-recommended, and many will be eager to read Quinn’s new book: The Rose Code. The Alice Network is a four out of five read from me.