Review published on June 30, 2017.
In April 1943, twenty-seven-year old Flight Sergeant Billy Angell, a Wireless Operator, joins Bomber Command at RAF Wickenby, one of a network of airfields in the east of England. Prior to the start of the war he had been a successful actor but, as a committed Quaker and pacifist, when the war started he became a registered conscientious objector, working in a hospital. However, the death of the close friend who had introduced him to Quakerism causes him to question both his faith and his role in the war and so he enlists. He is well aware that barely half of bomber crew members survive the thirty missions which constitute a full tour, after which there is an exemption from active service for six months. However, against all the odds, Billy does survive, although he is deeply traumatised by the psychological effects of seeing so much carnage, uncomfortably recognising the part he has played in this destruction.
His fears about eventually having to face future missions are, to some extent allayed when he is approached by MI5 to take part in a top secret mission in Nazi-occupied France. They are interested in a woman called Lafosse who lives in a château in Touraine, where she is known to offer refuge to Jews, refugees, members of the resistance movement and downed Allied airmen. She is protected in these activities because of her relationship with an Abwehr intelligence officer, Bjorn Klimt, a man she has come to love and trust, even though she is still in love with her husband, Nathan Khorrami, a Jewish art dealer who has fled to London. MI5 wants Billy to agree to be dropped in France, to make contact with this woman, gain her trust and plant a false lead about the expected Allied invasion of northern France, with the expectation that this will be passed on to her German lover. The ability to act well is a pre-requisite for a spy and, although nervous about his mission, Billy is at least confident in his acting skills.
I found this an engaging novel, and thought that the author maintained a real tension in his story-telling. As in his first WWII novel, Finisterre, initially the narrative switched between Billy’s and Hélène’s stories but, as these gradually merged, there was less switching and more of a feeling of focus to the story. However, for me the real strength in this story was the portrayal of the individual characters, their relationships and their interactions. I thought that Graham Hurley captured, in a thought-provoking way, the moral dilemmas and dangers they faced as they tried to navigate their personal journeys through the horrors of war and occupation. In my review of Finisterre I reflected on the fact that I found his development of the romantic aspects of his characters’ relationships less successful. However, in this story I thought that he was far more convincing in his portrayals of the multi-faceted and complex relationships which exercised the consciences of Billy and Hélène.
Most of his plot development felt credible, although there were a couple of occasions when I did find that my credulity was stretched just a bit too far! I thought that he generated a very real sense of the ever-impending threat which must accompany any espionage mission or participation in a resistance movement. As the story progressed, this threat and accompanying fear began to feel almost unbearable, to the extent that I was torn between not wanting to be exposed to the horrors being faced, and yet finding myself unable to bear to put the book down. There were some shocking, although not totally surprising, twists towards the end and these images, which I won’t elaborate on because that would spoil the story, continue to haunt me. As in his earlier book, the author blended fact and fiction in a way which made very effective use of his extensive research, reminding the reader of some of the horrors of this shameful period of European history whilst not making them the only focus of his story-telling.
This is the second book in the “Wars Within” trilogy; Finisterre was first in the series and Estocado is to follow. However, as I know from having very recently read, reviewed and enjoyed Finisterre, this book is one that can easily be read as a stand-alone novel because the links between the stories, although adding extra interest, are tenuous rather than crucial. In some ways I found this a less thought-provoking read than the first book but, as a group read I think some of the themes and moral dilemmas covered would make for some very interesting discussion and debate.
Linda Hepworth 3/4
Aurore by Graham Hurley
Head of Zeus 9781784977856 hbk Jun 2017