When I read in E. Goudge’s autobiography “The Joy of the Snow” about how the Guernsey Islands were occupied during World War 2, I always wondered what had happened there. Goudge’s grandparents were Islanders and her memories of the Island are poetic and full of happy reminisces. She wrote, “Although my mother was never able to go back to Guernsey after my birth she remained a staunch Channel Islander. She was a woman of strong feelings, wonderfully controlled…only once do I remember an outburst of passion. It was at the beginning of the last war, when England was forced to abandon the islands to German occupation. My mother burst into a storm of grief and fury which shocked me speechless.”
In “The Soldier’s Wife” by Margaret Leroy, Vivienne de la Mare is living with her two daughters and her mother-in-law on Guernsey Island. Her husband (who is not faithful to her) has gone off to fight in the Second World War. The house next door is soon occupied by German soldiers, and Vivenne’s life ultimately becomes very complicated.
What happens when a core human need intersects with a temptation and the perfect opportunity to compromise? how long can one suffer the lack of basic human emotional requirements without making a choice that irrevocably dooms them to notoriety as a collaborator? does adultery on the part of one marriage partner justify it for the other? Is adultery *ever* a justifiable choice?
How long does it take for one’s intrinsic core values to break down under prolonged duress, or when one lacks support within the safety of a normal family or marital relationship?
When we consider the challenges Vivienne faces, the food shortages, the lack of affirmation from her mother-in-law while experiencing the slow deterioration that aging and mental capacity brings, the disappointment and conflict between her teen daughter and herself (when Vivienne refuses to leave the Island), and the lack of communication from her husband away at war (even though he is not been faithful to her), we may begin to understand why Vivienne is vulnerable to any gesture of human kindness.
“I’ll soon be forty myself,” I tell him. “Yet sometimes I feel as if I’m still waiting for my life to begin.” I’m speaking slowly, working out exactly what I mean. “I spend so much time waiting. Waiting for Millie to start school, so I’ll have a bit more spare time. Waiting for Eugene to come back home…” I hesitate, wondering if I mentioned Eugene because I felt I should; not sure if I feel that, if I miss him. “Waiting for the war to be over…But life doesn’t wait – it trickles between your fingers, trickles away… Does that sound stupid? I’m sure it sounds stupid.”
“No, it doesn’t” he says..
“Sometimes I’ve envied that…the way men’s lives are more about doing than waiting. Sometimes I feel as though the real things are passing me by. As though I’ve been pushed to the margins of life. Sometimes I’ve even envied Eugene – going off to fight.”
Vivienne admits in this book that she no longer knows what to believe, although her mother-in-law continues to read her Bible daily and her daughter attends church regularly. Vivienne’s choices reflect her lack of faith in a religious belief system that expects faithfulness to one’s marital vows. However, in the course of the novel, Vivienne makes the choice to show mercy and kindness to someone in need, even though it endangers the lives of herself and her own family.
Can it be possible to compromise in one area of life and simultaneously, go ‘above and beyond’ the call of duty in another?
“Blanche draws in a breath, like someone about to dive into deep water. “The thing is, Mum it has been… Somebody invited us. He said it would be a good evening. There’s going to be dancing. You know how I love dancing. What could happen to us exactly?” she says.
“Who is this somebody, Blanche?”
I see her throat move as she swallows. Pink spots come to her cheeks.
“He’s called Tomas Kreutzer,” she says.
…I stare at her, not believing what I’m hearing.
“So, the Germans are giving this party?”
“Celeste says Tomas is ever so polite. Really, Mum. He doesn’t agree with the war. He thinks Great Britain and Germany should be allies, because we’re so alike. He says we aren’t like other races.”
I don’t say anything.”
Vivienne’s life and circumstances illustrate the complicated structure of so many during this period of history. Vivienne accepts food and special treats like chocolate from her German soldier, but she also turns around to feed her soldier’s ‘enemy’. How can this apparent contradiction fit into the story? and how can Vivienne warn Blanche, her daughter, about making friends with the enemy, when she herself faces the same kind of temptation?
The author’s writing is descriptive and evocative. Her portrayals of life on Guernsey Island make me want to go there! I appreciate that although ultimately a love story amidst war and tragedy, her writing is not too dark or graphic.
“The Soldier’s Wife” is a sad story, and a tragic one. Like “Anna Karenina”, Vivienne makes choices that are destructive to the moral infrastructure of her marriage. The author has a way of enabling the reader to sympathise with the obvious dialetics behind her choice, while at the same time attempting to prove that Vivienne can redeem herself through the decisions she eventually makes.
What becomes apparent in this novel is that in her quest for someone who will truly love her, Vivienne, has traded one heartache for another.
“Mrs. de la Mare. I have to tell you,” he says, haltingly. “We didn’t know the things that were being done in our name. Many of us who served in the army, believing in our country – that we had to restore our pride, to recover the land we had lost – when we saw what had been done, we wept….Not all of us. But some of us.”
“How could you have not known?” I struggle. There are no words big enough. “I mean – even here, on Guernsey – you could see the brutality.”
“You do your job,” he says. “You do what you have to do. You don’t always look around you. You don’t always think about everything.” And, when I don’t say anything: “You may feel that is wrong,” he says, “and you would be right to feel that. But that is how people behave. Most of us, most of the time. People behave as they are told to behave, as those around them behave. Generally, this is what happens. It is depressing but true. This is what we are like…”
Near the very end of the book, Vivienne makes another choice, one that seems out of character for her, but one that also seems to portray that finally, Vivienne’s conscience is going to win out in this complicated and absorbing novel. But another surprise awaits the reader that causes one to wonder for a very long time, how choice made without full knowledge of other’s lives, that they are affected and impacted even more than our own.
I will not forget this book in a hurry!