Agnes is a bad mother. She seems emotionally distant. She often goes into fugue states where she will stand, staring at nothing. It is hard for her to be fully present with her two children.
What they don’t know is that they aren’t actually her children. They were entrusted to her by their dying mother in a concentration camp.
They also don’t know that Agnes had a child of her own, a baby boy, who was lost in the Holocaust.
Freddie, Agnes’ son, has given up on his mother, her issues and her drama, her apparent inability to be there for him emotionally. It’s not until his own daughter, Lucy, is grown, and Agnes develops a degenerative disease that Freddie will belatedly get to know the history of a warm-hearted woman who was permanently broken by the Nazi occupation of France.
Meanwhile, as Agnes loses her ability to walk, and then to speak, a recently outed Nazi war criminal takes refuge in an English monastary. He is the man who sent Agnes and her baby to the camps.
This beautifully written book was really traumatic to read, and not because there is any graphic violence.
Brodrick does an amazing job of showing how the Nazi occupation of France put everyone in a position where, almost no matter what they did, they ended up failing or betraying someone. He shows how even a moment of weakness or cowardice could have fatal consequences for a person’s friends. That was the thing that really got me. Reading this, you can’t help asking yourself how you would do in the same situation, and coming up with an unsatisfactory answer. I say it prepared me well for Good Friday because it made me feel guilty as hell.
And these little failures of character, which might not have a huge impact in ordinary times, during the Holocaust would change and cripple people forever. Brodrick shows how a mythology grew up around the young people in the French resistance, such that three generations later, having had a hero in your family could bestow benefits, and being associated with a Nazi or a collaborator became a deep dark family secret. He shows how even the children who were smuggled out of France grew up with “shame,” because, as avenging angel Salomon Lachaise puts it, “you cannot escape the sensation that you have taken someone else’s place.”
One of the most affecting lines in the book, for me, was after the Frenchman has just been blackmailed by the Nazi guard. He hears the guard throwing up in the adjacent room.
Nevertheless, there is a redemptive thread to this book. It really makes you feel genuinely sorry for every single character (both the war generation and the later generations), and makes you realize how badly these poor people, in the midst of this great evil, needed a supernatural savior.
As do we all.