#BookReview — The Occupation by Deborah Swift
By Deborah Swift
One woman’s secret war against the Nazis.
One man’s war against himself…
1940, Jersey When Nazi forces occupy Jersey in the English Channel Islands, Céline Huber, who is married to a German, must decide where her loyalty lies. Love for her island, and fear for her Jewish friend Rachel, soon propel her into a dangerous double life. Meanwhile, Céline’s husband Fred is conscripted into the Wehrmacht in occupied France. Horrified by Nazi acts of atrocity and torture, he soon becomes a double agent for the French Resistance. But when things go wrong, and his Nazi masters discover his true allegiance, he finds he has the whole of the German Army on his tail. How far will Céline go for her best friend?
Will Fred make his way home to her? Or will their lives be changed forever by the brutality of war?
"They won't come here. The Jersey Evening Post says these islands are not worth conquering. At least, not unless Hitler wants an ice-cream and a ride on a donkey."
But come they did, and they occupied the Channel Islands in far greater numbers than the tourists ever had. The British had tried to evacuate the islands, of course, before Churchill demilitarised it, but there were not enough boats for everyone. For Céline Huber, there was nothing to be done other than endure the occupation. As for Céline's best friend, Rachel Cohen would spend the next five years in hiding, for Rachel was a Jew, and everyone had heard the rumours about the camps the Jews were sent to.
Céline's husband, Siegfried "Fred" Huber's war was very different from that of his wife's. For Fred was German, and he had been conscripted into the German Army. Fred knew nothing about war. He was a pâtissier, a baker. He feared he would never survive the front, and he would never see his beloved Céline again. However, Fred's war would not be fought at the front, and surprisingly, nor would it be fought for Germany.
From a beautiful summer’s day spent on one of Jersey's sandcastle-perfect beaches to the day Céline learns the truth about her husband's war, The Occupation by Deborah Swift is the heartbreakingly poignant story of one young couple whose lives are irrevocably changed forever by the outbreak of World War 2.
Initially, The Occupation by Debora Swift was published as a short -story in The Darkest Hour: WWII Tales of Resistance, which was in aid of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in 2019, and it was in that anthology that I first read it. Swift decided to republish this book as a full-length novel, and I have been on tenterhooks waiting to read it.
The Occupation is a tender exploration of what life was like for the islanders as they suffered five very long years under German military occupation during World War 2. With an impressively sweeping narrative and beautifully presented prose, Swift has bestowed upon her readers a book that is as majestic as it is brilliant. I am so glad Swift decided to relaunch this novel because it is an utterly enchanting, heart-rending tale, of war, occupation, friendship, and love.
The Occupation isn't a story of good verse evil — although there is plenty of evil to go around — it is instead an exploration of the human soul. How often can you look away from unimaginable suffering? What would you risk to save someone you cared about? How quick are you to judge your neighbour? And are you really a traitor if you dare to stand up and fight for the persecuted? All of these questions, Swift asks her readers through the actions of her protagonists.
The Channel Islands have always held a special place in my heart, and even today the fortifications can still be found on the islands — a sinister reminder of The Atlantic Wall. The story about the war from the islanders’ perspective is not unique, but it is indeed rare, and to find a story that has captured the very essences of the community during this era is a real treat. I felt like I was back on Jersey, only many years before my time!
Céline Huber is a wonderful heroine. Her story is one of hardship, suffering, heartache, and abuse. However, Céline endured everything that befalls her with grace and a tenacious belief that no matter how hard it gets, no matter how awful her life is, one day the mines will be cleared from the beaches and will be replaced by sandcastles. Her loyalty to her friend, Rachel, is absolute. She will do anything. She will bear everything if it keeps Rachel from falling into enemy hands. I thought Swift really surpassed herself with Céline's depiction. Her character is so very vivid in the telling and so very brave. This is a protagonist that a reader can really get behind.
What was there not to love about Fred Huber? Fred didn't want to go to war. He loves his wife to distraction, and he just wants to be back in Jersey, with Céline safely held in his arms. But as much as he longs for an end of a war, for a return of normality, the first thing he has to do is survive. But unlike the majority of men who felt they had no choice but to obey orders, Fred dares to think for himself. Placed as a spy in war-torn Paris to root out the leaders of La Résistance, Fred faces some tough decisions — does he stay faithful to the Fatherland, or not? As well as a spy, Fred is a translator and some of the things he is asked to translate freezes his heart and makes it easier to come to a decision. He thought he was a patriot, but Germany, under the Nazi regime, is going down a road Fred cannot follow. And hence the baker, the pâtissier, feels he has no other option than to fight for La Résistance. Fred's journey is a humbling story of the difference one man can make when you stand up to unimaginable evil. His conscience will not be silenced. He has to help La Résistance — he does not see any other choice. I adored everything about Fred. He is this lovely gentleman who would rather die than see his friends suffer at the hands of the SS. Fred's story left me in tears on more than one occasion, it is utterly harrowing and reminded me greatly of the late 1980's television show Wish Me Luck by Lavinia Warner and Jill Hyem. It has the same desperate feel.
There are several antagonists in this book — from neighbours who are more than happy to point fingers and shout accusations, to Fred's own brother. War does strange things to people, it is said, and Swift has certainly captured every conceivable emotion. At times the things the antagonists do, make for some challenging reading, but war is brutal, and Swift hasn't shied away from that fact.
The attention to the historical detail has to be commended. Swift has obviously spent many long hours researching what it was like in Jersey during the occupation, as well as what it was like in France. This novel has a large canvas, and the events that Swift depicts are as accurate as she could possibly make them, but then by adding in the human fragility and the suffering that this atrocious war caused, makes this book terribly difficult to put down.
The Occupation by Deborah Swift is a work of incredible scholarship, and it is in all ways a Historical Fiction success. This is a book that deserves to be read again and again.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Deborah Swift is the author of three previous historical novels for adults, The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily, and A Divided Inheritance, all published by Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, as well as the Highway Trilogy for teens (and anyone young at heart!). Her first novel was shortlisted for the Impress prize for new novelists.
She lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.