Been sat on my shelf for a while, but bumped up TBR list for a readalong on Librarything.
Suite française are the two books that Irène Némirovsky wrote in WW2, before her death in Auschwitz. The two books themselves are rather different, but as can be seen from the first appendix, the author planned to tie the threads together.
The first book is Storm in June, set in the time that the Germans were knocking on the gates of Paris, and those who could fled. The chapters move between different groups of rather different characters on their flight. Famous writer, Corte, is on the road with his much more practical mistress, indeed he is rather ridiculous, more concerned with his latest manuscript and status. The Péricands are also heading south with the elderly grandfather. Charlotte is just trying to keep her family safe and in one piece, something which becomes harder as she nears the Nîmes, their destination.
What struck me most about Storm in June were people's strange reactions to the situation around them, such as Corte wanting to complain to the town mayor, as if there wasn't a war on. Perhaps this attempt to cling to norms is a coping mechanism, without norms, the world goes to pot. The female characters show more practicality. There is chaos and confusion as the refugees struggle in their passage, there is reaction of the locals they come across, at first friendly, but later as more and more people arrive, this turns into hostility.
The second book, Sweet, takes place in occupied France. The French see the Germans billeted in their homes, the young German soldiers in the streets, laughing and joking, which is hard to swallow as most of the young men have gone to fight, and many are dead or in camps.
Lucille, an unhappily married woman living with her mother-in-law, is drawn to Bruno, the officer in her house. She is fighting herself, her feelings for the enemy, even though Bruno is much more attentive to her than her husband, who only married her for her money and keeps a mistress. On one of the farms, tension is rising as a German officer makes moves on the young wife of the farmer.
In Dolce, the Germans are a physical presence, not just a threat. At first the villagers and farmers try to keep their distance, but fraternisation is inevitable. There is collaboration, with the town mayor, the local landlord, toadying to the occupying forces. Némirovsky successfully shows the dilemmas of occupations, and that life is not black and white, but patriotism seems to shine through in the end. The second book is more plot-driven, rather than emotion-driven like the first.
The book has two appendices, the first made up of Némirovsky's notes on the books, giving us some idea of where the narrative was heading. The second is the correspondence about Némirovsky, her status as a Jew, her deportation, and the heart-breaking search of her husband and friends. Even more tragic when you realise that she was killed almost immediately on arrival in Auschwitz. It does also make you doubly aware of the elephant in the room, the author was deported as a Jew, but had converted to Catholicism, but even still there are no Jewish characters, or even converts like herself, and nowhere are deportations mentioned.
I don't think it is possible to read this book without already having some sort of opinion before. As a European, who has grown up with WW2 all around me, from my grandparents' own stories, to the many books and films, I was pleasantly surprised that Irène Némirovsky's book was able to bring another side to the story. This is not a book about heroes, rather this is the reality of people living in terrible times. At first, in the first book, I found it hard to sympathise with the characters, until I tried to place myself in their shoes, surely our own survival is the most basic of instincts. You also have to remember that many of the characters had survived the previous war, not that many years before, and a lot of their decisions and reactions are with WW1 in mind.
I can't stress more heavily how much this book affected me, I usually write a review in the days immediately after finishing a book. This time, I had to take time to absorb it, to think about it, and I think it is one of those books that stays with you. I am confident that without her senseless death, Némirovsky would have completed the cycle and sealed her position as a great writer.