I would not have paid any attention to the novel The Girl from the Channel Islands by Jenny Lecoat if it was published in North America under its original title used in the United Kingdom, Hedy’s War. Since the Channel Islands are a destination I hope to get to someday, the title jumped out at me. As a lover of islands and their culture, I have visited many insular locales as (repeated) vacation spots. I hope to visit these particular islands, and when I do I will combine it with my passion for endangered languages, although Jersey Norman French is unfortunately doomed to extinction.
Aside from the words Channel Islands, before I even opened the book I was struck by its cover. Imagine seeing the fleet of planes approaching your islands, knowing that invasion was imminent. The story takes place in Jersey, and centres on Hedy, a young Jewish woman from Vienna, who endures the German invasion of the islands during World War II. Lecoat wrote a story of forbidden love amidst a time of deprivation and persecution. Hedy falls in love with Kurt, a German lieutenant, and they share surreptitious meetings and concoct a series of plans to save her from being deported.
Kurt was portrayed as a sympathetic Nazi who was unaware of the horrors of the ongoing genocide. He was initially under the impression that Jews were being deported in order to work on farmland. It was only during his time on Jersey that he learned of the Final Solution from other officers. As he fell deeper in love with Hedy, he grew more fierce in his conviction to save her. I am sure that the schemes used to throw the Nazis off her scent as well as the ways she was hidden were drawn from real life.
The novel was written with solid blocks of text and sparse dialogue. In spite of this, Lecoat made the story flow rapidly and I couldn’t put the book down. I liked her simile:
“The phrase swung in the air like frozen washing, stiff and wrongly shaped.”
The author described the wartime environment of rationing and adapting to food shortages. I don’t know how I’d cope without my daily coffee and having to make do with carrot or parsnip substitutes. Lecoat, an Islander from Jersey herself, no doubt drew upon her own family history and from the acknowledgements she interviewed those who lived through the occupation to learn about details such as this.
It was only after reading the acknowledgements and a brief author interview at the end of the book that the reader discovers that the novel was based on a true story, where all the main characters were based on real people. (By the time I got to the end of the book I had forgotten about the true story note on the front cover.) I was left feeling a sense of awe and wonder at the ordeal the real Hedy Bercu endured in order to stay alive. The end of the novel left me hanging, however, as I don’t believe that the UK would have permitted Kurt, a former Nazi officer, to remain living in England even if he was married to Hedy.