Book Review: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

I read the audio version of The Lost Girls of Paris, having first been intrigued by the book when it came out. Perhaps I was a little reluctant to read about female agents dropped into France during the war, as I knew many fell straight into enemy hands only to be tortured and killed. The title of the book offers no consolation but trialling the first few minutes of the audiobook, I found I was immediately hooked.

It’s New York in 1946, and Grace Healey is on her way to work after a tumble in the sack with an old friend of her late husband. She’d bumped into Mark on the street, had too much to drink, etc. etc. and now she feels a little ashamed of herself. She feels scruffy in yesterday’s clothes and is running late. Near Grand Central Station, she comes across the aftermath of an accident – a woman hit by a car and killed, a sobering moment for sure. Determined to clean herself up in the station bathroom, Grace discovers an abandoned suitcase and takes a peek inside to look for the owner’s identity. There are no obvious clues, but tucked within is a packet of photographs showing women in uniform.

The sight of the photos does something to Grace and before she knows it, she’s stuffed them into her handbag before hurrying off to work. Planning to return them later, events conspire against her. Grace learns the photos belonged to the dead woman, Eleanor Trigg, a former British secret service officer in charge of women agents sent to France. She becomes determined to find out what Trigg was doing in New York and the significance of the photos. Slowly, the story of the women agents who lost their lives in the build-up towards D-Day unfolds.

The novel is told partly from Grace’s point of view, with her developing and bumpy relationship with Mark as a back story. We also have the narrative voice of Eleanor Trigg herself, a former Polish refugee, with indispensable skills at the conference table at SOE headquarters. When male agents keep getting captured in France, Eleanor points out that they are too easily spotted in a country where nearly all the younger men have been sent to camps as either POWs or for work. She suggests sending women. The idea seems shocking at first, but before long, Eleanor finds herself in charge of their recruitment and supervision.

The third narrator is Marie, noticed on a train reading Baudelaire in the original French and offered an interview. Marie is just scraping by, trying to maintain payments on her London home, her husband having decamped for South America and leaving her with a young daughter, now in the care of an aunt. It’s hard to imagine why Marie would be a good agent, apart from the faultless French, as she’s always asking questions and struggles with the training. Only her rapport with Josie, a former street kid with plenty of nous and well-honed survival skills, keeps Marie going. We follow Marie through her first missions in France as a radio operator, her friendships with fellow agents, particularly the gruff young man in charge of operations.

The story keeps you on the edge of your seat, with the Allied invasion looming, the liberation of France can’t be far away. But this only adds to the risks Marie and co must take, sabotaging the enemy’s potential to fight back and that will mean reprisals. Meanwhile, Grace struggles to learn more about Eleanor and the women agents who failed to return after the war. No one knows what happened to them, they just disappeared.

I enjoyed the characters of Marie, Eleanor and especially Grace, who is still coming to terms with being a war widow, but is determined to forge an independent life for herself in New York, rather than relying on her comfortably off parents. There are some interesting minor characters – I particularly enjoyed Grace’s boss, an overworked solicitor advocating for recently arrived immigrants. The writing however was a little overwrought at times when I felt the events of the story often spoke for themselves. This was a little disappointing as this is such a story worth telling. Still, the narration of the audiobook made it all whizz by and the ending was reasonably satisfying. A three out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

The Spies of Shilling Lane by is another wartime story by Jennifer Ryan, the author that brought us the hugely popular novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. As before we have a mix of unlikely heroes and heroines thrown into the maelstrom of World War II, with outcomes to surprise both the reader and themselves.

With her second novel, we meet the loud, bossy and unlovable Mrs Braithwaite on her way to London to find her daughter, Betty. It is 1941, and London is being hammered by the blitz, so why would Betty want to leave the comforts of home and the small town of Ashcombe? To make matters worse, Mrs B has been dropped by the Aschombe Women’s Voluntary Service where she was Queen Bee, a role taken on by former friend Mrs Metcalf. The ladies aren’t happy with Mrs B because of her divorce and general bossiness.

No wonder Betty escaped to work for Bexley Sewage Works – who wouldn’t? When Betty seems to have disappeared, Mrs B inserts herself at Betty’s address, number 3 Shilling Lane, also home to landlord, Mr Norris, a quiet unassuming accounts clerk, and two girls: vague and messy Florrie, and coolly beautiful Cassandra, neither of whom were particular friends of Betty’s.

Mrs B discovers that Betty has never been an employee at the sewage works, but a series of clues lead her to a butcher shop in Clapham. Suddenly Mrs B is thrown into the dangerous world of MI5 and an undercover operation to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. She may have over-focussed on social standing at the expense of her daughter in the past but she’s brave enough to get to the bottom of things, determined to make amends.

Mrs B drags Mr Norris into her plans – a reluctant hero if ever there was one. But while Mrs B is learning what it means to be a caring parent, Mr Norris is developing the courage he’d always thought he’d lacked. In the meantime, London is repeatedly under siege, and our team of reluctant heroes are completely confounded by not knowing who they can trust, Ryan throwing in a few plot twists before the final page.

Jennifer Ryan has created a humorous story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, with a cast of colourful characters and believable settings. It is also at times an emotional book, the carnage of the blitz creating a relentless backdrop to events, out of which appear small moments of hope. However, I struggled not see Mrs B as a kind of wartime Hyacinth Bucket (tv’s Keeping Up Appearances), and yes, I did find my credulity stretched a little at times. So while I found it competently written and engrossing enough, it’s a three out of four from me this time.

Book Review: Restless by William Boyd

restlessWilliam Boyd is one of those rare writers you can trust to turn in a taut and thrilling plot while paying attention to the fine craft of writing. His sentences are thoughtful and elegant and his characters multi-faceted. So it is with Restless,  first published in 2006, and later dramatised by the BBC.

The story spans two eras, the most recent taking place during the heatwave of 1976 as  Ruth visits her mother, Sal, in the Cotswolds and finds cause for alarm. Sal is showing paranoid behaviour to the point of pretending she needs a wheelchair.  She hands her daughter a packet with the start of her memoir, detailing events going back to 1939 and her recruitment into Britain’s secret service.

I can see what the BBC saw in Restless. It’s got a lot going for it and not just pleasant locations which would look attractive on the small screen: Oxford in the heatwave of 1976; Scotland (where Eva has secret agent training and changes her name); London during the blitz; New York in winter; and New Mexico and even Paris get a look-in too. Continue reading “Book Review: Restless by William Boyd”

Quick Review: MI5 and Me – a memoir by Charlotte Bingham

9781408888148If it was in any way possible to cross a novel by John Le Carré with one by Nancy Mitford, it might turn out a bit like this. MI5 and Me is an account of the author’s time working in the typing pool in the British secret service during the 1950s.

Bingham’s father (also the inspiration for Le Carré’s Smiley) was a distant man who didn’t talk about his work at home. When his daughter shows no talent for making anything of her life, he finds her a job at MI5 where he holds a senior position. At the time, the bureau is mostly concerned with communism, spying on what seem to be perfectly harmless people, breaking into their homes and planting bugs in their telephones. As well as creating endless paperwork – hence the typing pool. Continue reading “Quick Review: MI5 and Me – a memoir by Charlotte Bingham”