Book Review: The Secret of the Grand Hôtel du Lac by Kathryn Gauci
Publication Date: 1st December 2020 Publisher: Ebony Publishing Page Length: 272 Pages Genre: Historical Fiction / World War II
Preparations for the D-Day invasion are well advanced. When contact with Belvedere, one of the Resistance networks in the Jura region of Eastern France, is lost, Elizabeth Maxwell, is sent back to the region to find the head of the network, her husband Guy Maxwell.
It soon becomes clear that the network has been betrayed. An RAF airdrop of supplies was ambushed by the Gestapo, and many members of the Resistance have been killed.
Surrounded on all sides by the brutal Gestapo and the French Milice, and under constant danger of betrayal, Elizabeth must unmask the traitor in their midst, find her husband, and help him to rebuild Belvedere in time for SOE operations in support of D-Day.
Someone had betrayed them. That much was clear: but who?
When Elizabeth Maxwell was summoned to 64 Baker Street, London, she had hoped to hear news of her husband. To her horror, she learns that the Gestapo and the French Milice had ambushed an RAF airdrop of supplies to the Belvedere Resistance. Many Resistance fighters had been killed, and there had been no communication from the head of the Belvedere Resistance - Guy Maxwell, Elizabeth’s husband.
Having at first frowned upon Elizabeth’s marriage to Guy (for emotional entanglement between agents was discouraged) Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F Section of the Special Operations, now wants Elizabeth to go back into the field and find out exactly what had happened.
Desperate to find out if her husband is dead or alive, Elizabeth willingly agrees. She had worked as a courier for the Belvedere Resistance six months previously, and she knew the area well. It soon became apparent to Elizabeth that there was a traitor in their midst. But unearthing the traitor seemed nearly as impossible as finding out what had happened to her husband and the other members of the Resistance who had survived the vicious attack.
Elizabeth is all too aware that time is against her. The Belvedere Resistance must be in a position where they could support the Allied forces by use of sabotage and subversion to undermine the German occupying forces in time for D-Day.
Inspired by historical events and people, The Secret of the Grand Hôtel du Lac by Kathryn Gauci is an enthralling story that held me captivated from the very first sentence to the final full stop. Gauci has depicted an extremely violent time with an intuitive understanding of what makes history worth reading. This is a novel that does not threaten to mesmerise, it does.
Elizabeth is a character that I came to adore. She is a remarkably strong woman who takes incredible risks to find out what exactly happened. Her determination to discover if her husband is alive or dead was heart-rendering. However, Elizabeth tries to put her personal fears aside, for she has a job to do, and she is determined to do it. I don’t think I would have been as brave as Elizabeth if I found myself in such a situation, but Elizabeth remains clear-headed throughout, which saves her life on more than one occasion. She also gets on with life, despite what is happening around her. If she needs a new dress, she will make one. If a friend needs help with a medical emergency (Elizabeth is a trained nurse), she will change her plans to ensure those in need, received her help. However, there were moments where Elizabeth surprised me. For someone who came across as exceedingly gentle, she could also be coldly ruthless.
The other protagonist in this novel is Guy, but to speak of him would be to give away some spoilers and that I will not do. If you want to find out the truth about what happened that terrible night, then you will have to read the book!
Throughout this novel, Gauci explores the chaotic, not to mention the senseless brutality of warfare. The German occupying forces are determined to keep control of the populous - their weapon of choice being fear by using threats, torture, deportation and, in many cases, murder. However, there are times where the Resistance is equally brutal, as unfeeling and unforgiving. Thus reminding the reader that this is a war story, and that society’s normal rules, society’s code of morality, are swept aside. On both sides, there seemed to be a dehumanisation of those who threatened, or at least might threaten, their end goal. This meant that the general populous found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place with no control of their destiny, let alone their immediate future. But still, they try to get on with life. They try to bring some normality to this abnormal time. With hindsight, it is remarkably easy to judge those who collaborated with the enemy, but Gauci asks her readers if it was your family that was threatened, what would you do? Being a patriot may sound romantic and heroic, but when you are faced with an unimaginably difficult decision, it is easy to see why patriotism flew out the window, along with honour and loyalty.
Gauci has depicted this era’s immense suffering with an accomplished author’s skill and an empathetic understanding of human nature. So, although the Germans and the French Milice are the antagonists in this novel, Gauci does not whitewash the actions and the lengths that the Resistance were prepared to go to. There are some scenes of torture and murder in this novel that are incredibly distressing. But this was a brutal period of history, and although I deplored what the Germans did, I found myself not wanting to forgive what the Resistance did either. And although it is anger and betrayal that is behind the Resistance’s lack of humanity, it does give the reader pause for thought, and it also reminds them that there were unforgivable and deplorable acts carried out on both sides.
Gauci also explores the question of morality in this novel. The fact that there were some people who were more than willing to exploit others for their own financial gain should come as no surprise, but for some reason, I actually found it surprising. We often hear stories of remarkable courage where members of the general population hid their Jewish neighbours and friends at significant personal risk, but I have never read a story where there were unscrupulous people who exploited those whose situations were precarious. Although this type of profiteering is mentioned only briefly in this novel, it certainly struck a chord.
The distinction between appearance and reality is often a profoundly blurred line throughout the length of this book. The Resistance was successful because of its secretive nature, and because of its skill of its agents in infiltrating and gaining the trust of the enemy. The emotional terminal and abuse that these people endured from the very people they were actually helping really drove home the fact that appearance was not always what it seemed.
The attention to the historical detail has to be commended. The hours of research that have gone into this novel shine clearly through every carefully crafted sentence. Gauci knows this era well, and her dedicated research has certainly paid off, for it is a vivid and historically accurate world in which she has placed her characters.
This novel is an emotional read, and yet it is also a profoundly truthful depiction of the era and the role that the Resistance had to play in the success of the Allied invasion of France.
The Secret of the Grand Hôtel du Lac by Kathryn Gauci is a novel that once started is extremely difficult to turn away from. This is a book that demands to be read in one sitting. If you enjoy quality Historical Fiction set during World War II, then this book should certainly have a place upon your bookshelf.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde. The Coffee Pot Book Club.
Kathryn Gauci was born in Leicestershire, England, and studied textile design at Loughborough College of Art and later at Kidderminster College of Art and Design where she specialised in carpet design and technology. After graduating, Kathryn spent a year in Vienna, Austria before moving to Greece where she worked as a carpet designer in Athens for six years. There followed another brief period in New Zealand before eventually settling in Melbourne, Australia.
Before turning to writing full-time, Kathryn ran her own textile design studio in Melbourne for over fifteen years, work which she enjoyed tremendously as it allowed her the luxury of travelling worldwide, often taking her off the beaten track and exploring other cultures. The Embroiderer is her first novel; a culmination of those wonderful years of design and travel, and especially of those glorious years in her youth living and working in Greece – a place that she is proud to call her spiritual home.
Her second novel, Conspiracy of Lies, is set in France during WWII. It is based on the stories of real life agents in the service of the Special Operations Executive and The Resistance under Nazi occupied Europe. To put one’s life on the line for your country in the pursuit of freedom took immense courage and many never survived. Kathryn’s interest in WWII started when she lived in Vienna and has continued ever since. She is a regular visitor to France and has spent time in several of the areas in which this novel is set.
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