War has a way of teaching lessons—if only Camille and Mariele can survive long enough to learn them.!
Camille is quite headstrong, with a tendency to ignore convention, take risks, not toe the line. Mariele is less so, at first in awe of, and perhaps a little envious of Camille. But neither is stereo-typically 'feisty' and both are hugely aware of their place in society, and their duty, despite railing against it at times. Camille lives life to the full in part because of the death of her sister, Juliette. It is as if she is living life for the both of them, and this drive, born of such a loss, felt very credible. She knows, even before the siege begins, that life is fragile and can be snuffed out in a moment. This knowledge informs her actions.
The horrors of war, the effects of the violence not only on the soldiers but on the civilians, are graphically and unsparingly described. The author has an economy of words which gives us the bare detail, and somehow makes it more visual. However for me the main interest lies in the development of the young women and their burgeoning awareness not only of what war can do to people's lives, but of their own place in the world. Did it take war to make them realise that marriage and children are sometimes not enough, or was it the age in which they were living? There is a stark contrast between their privileged existence and the plight of the poor of Paris. The women who live in the poorer quarters agitate for change and a powerful message comes through that women from all corners of society want, nay demand, more rights.
Woven into this driving narrative are the individual stories, the breaching of the divide between rich and poor, and the brave people who put their lives and careers on hold in order to help the war effort. One such example is the actress Sarah Bernhardt who here is shown turning her theatre into a hospital. In such times, social niceties have to be ignored, to the acceptance of some and to the horror of others: there are situations where young ladies cannot be chaperoned, for example; these moments, and the day that Mariele brings two poor children back to her family's grand house, demonstrate that this was an age where the older generation in particular were at first scandalised and then had to grow to accept the changes all around them, changes that would endure beyond the war.
This period of French history is not one with which I was familiar, and the author has a knack of providing just enough information about the military campaign without slowing down the narrative. There is no awkward exposition, and no 'info dumping'. The characters who provide the news do so in a believable and logical way; they would indeed have been the ones to receive the intelligence. Other characters talk about what they've read in the newspapers, in a very conversational style.
The only thing I would have liked to have seen explained is how Andre, a young man of Camille's acquaintance, initially came to be doing his dangerous work, more of which I won't say, for fear of spoilers.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Annie Whitehead