Published in 1999, this is a story of love during war, a timeless theme taken up by many an author. What makes Charlotte Gray stand out is the author's meticulous research and his subtle use of subplots.
A young Scot, Charlotte Gray comes to London in early 1942, almost two years after the German invasion and occupation of France in 1940. She meets an RAF fighter pilot called Peter Gregory and they fall in love. Charlotte is recruited as a courier for British Intelligence. As she leaves for her first mission, she hears that Peter is missing in France. Once her mission is complete, she decides to remain in France and search for him. Charlotte is no reckless heroine, prone to impetuous, dangerous acts. She is strong-willed, determined and instinctive. Though ultimately she fails to locate or help Peter, she grows through the quest and comes to personify the strength of romantic devotion and love.
The First World War haunts the Second in this dark, introspective tale, through characters such as Captain Gray (Charlotte’s father, who originally appeared in Birdsong), Hartmann (The Girl at the Lion D’Or) and Levi (Birdsong). This bringing together of strands of Faulk's earlier works only adds to the sense of the fragility of human life in wartime.
Yet, the most poignant aspect of the novel is a sub-plot: the little Jewish Duguay boys whose parents have been deported and who are in hiding with sympathetic neighbours. Faulks is remorseless in his honesty about their hopeless situation: there is to be no happy ending for the boys. The image of their suitcase, abandoned on a station platform, is haunting. It is the little Duguay brothers who, along with Hartmann and Levi, remind us of the stupidity and futility of war. Faulks broke new ground in his depiction of French collaboration with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews. His description of the Drancy camp, followed by the arrival at Auschwitz, is a credit to his research. Their inclusion in the book serves as a necessary memorial lest we ever begin to forget.
Charlotte Gray is a fitting place for Faulks's France trilogy to end. It is finely researched, painful to read at times, yet utterly brilliant. Highly recommended.
Reviews of Charlotte Gray
Wall Street Journal: an immensely gripping tale
New York Times: no shortage of dramatic tension, excitement or persuasive detail
Antony Beevor in the Daily Telegraph: Excruciatingly powerful
Alain de Botton: A worthy successor to Birdsong
Baltimore Sun: A page turner for grown-ups, a novel with the rich detail of a great historical narrative
Lisa Jardine: This is a book full of insight into the way civilisation can slip into barbarism. Its haunting themes of memory and passion stay with you long after you have finished reading.
Independent on Sunday: A beautiful near-masterpiece
San Francisco Chronicle: A miraculous novel
Literary Review: Faulks has the rare gift of being popular and literary at the same time. Its page-turning quality in no way undermines the darkness that it describes
Daily Express: In Charlotte, Faulks has created a wonderfully complex and engaging heroine, with whom it is hard not to fall a little in love
Publishers Weekly: [Charlotte's] uncanny talent for memorizing documents, her nerves of steel and her equanimity when parachuting into Occupied France after scant training may leave readers incredulous
Amazon.com: the author's evocation of Occupied France is a triumph of grimy, monochromatic realism
Library Journal: As a story about the power of love, it uplifts the spirit. As a story of the dispassionate evil of the Nazis, it brings tears to the eyes. As a story about ordinary people struggling to survive, it arouses admiration, understanding, and revulsion.
Kirkus Reviews: What happens to Charlotte in the end may be less satisfying than other elements of her story, but the resolution, even so, leaves nothing of seriousness behind. A war novel that should take its place among the masterpieces of the genre.