Book Review: The Woman from Saint Germain, by J R Lonie

A celebrated writer stranded in Paris, and an enigmatic foreigner with a dangerous secret, flee Nazi-controlled Austria in 1941. Only the war could bring them together.

By
A chase to the safety of the Spanish border.
Overall
3.5

Eleanor Gorton Clarke is an American writer living an opulent Bohemian lifestyle in Nazi-occupied Paris, which is slowly disintegrating in front of her eyes. She is mourning the death of her Parisian lover at the hands of the Germans and doesn’t realise her situation until the United States enters the war overnight.

Her best option is to flee the city she loves with little more than her valise, a couple of cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes and a precious first edition of the James Joyce novel, Finnegans Wake. A stranger saves her life at the hands of two enemy soldiers, whom he kills. The two of them find themselves on the run to the Spanish border from the relentless Kommissar Anton Bauer, hell bent on avenging the deaths of the German youths, who remind him of his sons.

Eleanor and her saviour, Henk, the two circumstantial partners-in-crime, must work together to survive, but they instantly despise each other. Both enter their own journeys of trust and self-discovery, along with a growing passion. But another, deeper secret emerges, and Eleanor makes the ultimate sacrifice in the name of love.

Eleanor is an enticing character; dogmatic and resilient (she drove an ambulance in World War One), but also vain and somewhat selfish. It is her flaws that make her so relatable to the reader; she will risk her life to ensure her nose is powdered; she will accidentally expose her identity for the sake of being right in an argument. Things don’t always run smoothly for her and she’s usually at least partly to blame for this. Henk is more enigmatic and obtuse, and the reader is drawn into the slow reveal of his history.

Books and bookshops emerge as a motif: havens from the madness and unpredictability of war. Eleanor seeks both solitude and literal and metaphorical escape within these sanctuaries and they protect and strengthen her to the very end. 

There have been many novels set amongst the back drop of confusion and mayhem during World War Two, but few have told the predicament of Americans caught in Paris at such a volatile time. Even fewer have described the plight of German soldiers who have fought bravely for their country, only to be exposed as having Jewish parentage and suddenly find themselves on the other side of the fence. Author J.R. Lonie, predominantly a screen writer and script editor of Australian film and television such as Kokoda and A Place to Call Home, has meticulously researched these forgotten stories, which have become intertwined with the tales of his protagonists, along with their escape route through France to the Spanish border. Viewing World War Two from this perspective is thrilling and unique and makes for a great story.

Although the historical side of the novel is almost faultless, The Woman from Saint Germaindoes not deliver the level of depth to the story the reader is seeking. The chase becomes repetitive and tedious and there is too much focus on Bauer’s methamphetamine-induced obsessions, whereas some of the more climactic events of the novel are reported in a few undescriptive sentences. At times the narrative focus shifts, so the reader sees an event from Eleanor’s perspective and then reveals Henk’s feelings about the same event. This was not necessary and confused the story at times; it would have been better to have left the second perspective implied.

Overall though, a well-researched tale of a dangerous escape through war-torn France with engaging characters.

Reviewed by Becky Blake
Twitter: @beckyblake8

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster Australia
Released: March 2019
RRP: $29.99

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