Charlotte Gray is the third and final book in Sebastian Faulks’ French trilogy, and is set during the Second World War. While it is possible to read it as a standalone book, I would really recommend reading The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Birdsong first, otherwise there are a couple of aspects which won’t sucker punch you so hard, and you’ll really miss out on a heaving chest sobbing session.
Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I am a big fan of Sebastian Faulks, mainly because of Birdsong which, as I keep saying and will continue to say because I wholeheartedly believe it, is one of the greatest books ever written. It is therefore not surprising that Charlotte Gray didn’t live up to my Birdsong standards, although I really wasn’t expecting it to because I don’t think anything ever could. I enjoyed reading Charlotte Gray a lot, but it was sort of a book of two halves for me and it was the second half which really drew me in and wouldn’t let me go.
Charlotte Gray is a young Scottish woman who moves to London and very quickly falls in love with an airman, Peter Gregory. She begins working for the secret service, but when Gregory’s plane is shot down and he is reported missing in action, she decides to stay in France on the basis of aiding the French Resistance while also trying to track him down.
It’s quite a dramatic book and there’s lots of subterfuge and spy drama, but I did have a few problems with it. I didn’t think the actual writing was as good as in Birdsong, but again that’s kind of understandable because of my Birdsong standards. I wasn’t too keen on the character of Charlotte, I thought she was a bit of a sap and the instalove aspect of her relationship with Peter Gregory really bothered me. As far as I’m aware, the characters falling in love so quickly was a deliberate ploy by Sebastian Faulks to emphasise the dangerous times the characters were living in, and how young people had to be spontaneous and live life to the full while they could. I appreciated that he was using this as a dramatic device almost, but it’s still a trope that really bothers me, whether it’s applied consciously or not. It’s just not something that I can ever find believable. I could probably have overlooked it if there were other aspects which endeared me to Charlotte’s character, but I really didn’t warm to her and so ended up holding all these little things against her.
Something that wasn’t a ‘little thing’ at all though, and which left me really very cross with her actually, was Charlotte’s attitude towards her father (who was Stephen Wraysford’s senior officer in Birdsong). Charlotte can’t connect with her father emotionally, and puts it down to an experience she had with him as a child. She can’t remember what it was exactly, but she thinks it must have been some kind of abuse, or at least likens it to sexual abuse. In actual fact, her father was suffering psychologically after the First World War (which is entirely understandable) and had a breakdown. Charlotte witnessed a great emotional outpouring from him, and it is this which she likens to abuse. I can’t tell you how cross this makes me. The poor man was suffering, and because of this she blames him for ruining her childhood. I couldn’t ever forgive her for that, and I know this is a novel and not ‘real life’ but you wouldn’t believe the grudges I can hold against fictional characters.
However, all of this aside, it was the second half of the book which really picked up for me, and the last hundred pages or so could only be described as devastating. They deal with concentration camps, which is always going to be a difficult and emotive topic, but I was absolutely distraught by the end of the novel. Charlotte was trying to protect two little Jewish boys in France, Andre and Jacob, whose parents were taken away by the German police. She was unable to keep them hidden permanently though, and eventually they are taken to a concentration camp. Charlotte’s friend Levade is also taken away. He thinks he has been betrayed by his son Julien, not knowing that Julien was trying to save the little boys. Charlotte and Julien try to pass a message on to Levade to explain what really happened, however he died without knowing the truth, which was rather upsetting. It’s clear from the novel that Andre and Jacob died in the concentration camp, which was obviously distressing, but even more heartbreakingly, the two men who try to comfort them in the camp turn out to be Hartmann from The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Levi from Birdsong. I assume they also died, although it’s never made entirely clear, and it’s the not knowing aspect that was so upsetting. I was absolutely distraught. Hartmann was my favourite character in The Girl at the Lion d’Or, but that wasn’t really saying much because I didn’t like any of the others. However, I was so much more attached to him in Charlotte Gray, and to suspect but not fully know his fate at the end was just awful, and once I knew that Andre and Jacob weren’t going to be saved I knew it was extremely unlikely that Hartmann and Levi would be saved either. I was sobbing by the end, I know it sounds so trivial to say, but it was just so unfair. This is why I recommend reading The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Birdsong first, because you’re already familiar with the characters and it makes the ending so much more powerful and so much more emotional. It was brilliant in terms of storytelling, but that aspect of the story itself was totally awful.
I’ll say one thing about Sebastian Faulks, he does like to make me cry! It was the last hundred or so pages which really clinched it for me though, and which raised my opinion from Charlotte Gray being a good book to being a great book. Obviously it can’t possibly compare with Birdsong in my opinion, but I do think about (and worry about) the character of Hartmann quite a lot now, and I think that must say something in itself.
See also Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, The Girl at the Lion d’Or, A Fool’s Alphabet, A Possible Life, and Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel.