1943 and all that The British long have boasted that their island nation has not been invaded by a foreign power in nearly a thousand years, not since William the Conqueror's little expedition in 1066. It's a pretty boast, and it's almost true. They tend to overlook that Germany invaded the Channel Islands, off the coast of France, in 1940 and occupied them throughout World War II.
The story of the occupation has been told before, most succinctly in Alan and Mary Wood's Islands in Danger. But that was historical fact. Tim Binding now tells it in historical fiction in Lying with the Enemy (Carroll and Graf, $24, 0786706570), a novel set on Guernsey in 1943 that combines war story and whodunit to thumping great effect.
There are understandable reasons for shoving aside the inconvenient fact of occupation, because it brings in its train the embarrassing issues of capitulation and, especially, collaboration. The embarrassment was as true then as today. For what were they now? What identity did they possess? thinks Ned Luscombe, Guernsey's unwilling police-inspector-by-default. England kept quiet about the Channel Islands as if she were punishing the islands for letting the side down. Collaboration is the subject of Lying with the Enemy (seemingly expressed in the possible double meaning of the title, though the British title was Island Madness). Are you a traitor, the story implicitly asks, if you work for the occupiers in order to support your family? Are you more of a traitor if you're a businessman whose enterprise supplies the work? Are you a greater traitor still if you operate, or buy from, a black market when people are on near-starvation rations? The story asks these questions not because the author has the answers or even necessarily believes in the concept of treason but because the questions are always on the minds of the populace.
Conquerors and conquered manage to get on, sometimes swimmingly. Marjorie Hallivand, doyenne of Guernsey's pre-war smart set, is exhilarated by the war and the German officers, especially Major Lentsch, the island's commandant: They were of the same class, after all. Even those not of the island's petty aristocracy, like Veronica Vaudin, find it advantageous to be pliant. What surprised these men, still dressed in their once-feared uniforms, was how quickly the women had embraced their way of life. The sharpest expression of the collaboration is the relationship of Guernsey women to the German men. War in an insular backwater apparently having inflamed both the island's inhabitants and the author's imagination, there is copulation on a wholesale scale, though its distribution as always, whether in war or peace is unequal. Luscombe and Lentsch, however, have equally shared the favors of Isobel van Dielen, though at different times. Isobel is the daughter of a wealthy, widowed contractor who is helping the Germans with a monstrous construction project being built by 16,000 slave laborers, known as foreigns, who toil in brutish conditions, ignored by the islanders. Luscombe and Lentsch are enemies in love and war, until Isobel turns up dead, her mouth and nose filled with cement. Her death and the search for her killer bring them gradually closer together, though Luscombe initially suspects that Lentsch had something to do with the murder. Here the novel's tight construction tightens still further, as it screws itself up to rush down the multiplying dark avenues of a proper and highly satisfying murder mystery. Why has Isobel's father disappeared? Did he kill her, as many islanders believe? Was the charming and cruel Captain Zepernick, who likes to romp au naturel through the Victor Hugo house with Veronica, involved in some way? Or was Isobel killed by one of the foreigns?The murderer and motive, revealed at the very end, are more banal than anything suggested by those possibilities. By that time we have learned of the fundamental decency of Lentsch and of the supposedly sluttish Veronica.
We also learn that much of this activity has been driven behind the scenes by a possible visit to the island by Hitler, to whom, throughout the story, the author refers in capitals He, Him, His like a deity. Germany was His after all, like the world is God's, and who knows? maybe the future will wipe out the distinction.
But by that point in history such a consummation was not in the cards, however devoutly some Germans and some others wished it. Ah, war who the enemy, who the friend? Is collaboration treason? It depends.
Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.