A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I remember hearing about Libby Cone’s War on the Margins last year via the Dove Grey Reader literary blog. If memory serves, DGR had been sent a self-published copy of the novel and found it to be just as enjoyable as that other tale of Guernsey wartime occupation, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (a book that came hyped to the rafters). Since then, War on the Margins has been re-released by Duckworth and I jumped at the chance of a review copy.
Immediately I could see why DGR was impressed. The story is a simply told, but utterly compelling look at the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands. Three main female characters drive the narrative. Marlene (who considers herself something of an old maid, even though she is only in her twenties) works as a clerk in the Aliens Office and is initially part of the machine that requires those with Jewish connections to register so that they may be monitored by authorities. However, Marlene’s deceased father was himself Jewish and things take a turn for the worse when suspicion is cast at Marlene, who subsequently finds herself alone and on the run. The other main female characters are the two middle-aged Surrealist artists, Suzanne and Lucille (Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun), who have been in a lesbian relationship since adolescence and who fight the Nazi occupation with their own brand of resistance and propagandist work. Luckily for Marlene, Suzanne and Lucille cross her path, and together they set about their acts of civil disobedience, ever careful to avoid detection.
Some readers have described War on the Margins as a fact/fiction hybrid or as ‘faction’. The novel apparently began life as a thesis for a Jewish Studies Master’s course and it is indeed evident that a great deal of research is incorporated into the storytelling.The official documents woven throughout the text add to the richness of the story and it was these sections more than anything that kept me turning the pages. Despite everything we know about the persecution of the Jews, the Nazi orders are so outrageous (and pettily spiteful) that it is still difficult to fathom that they were ever created. Yet Libby Cone has reproduced faithfully the official documents in circulation at the time of the occupation.
The following extract is taken from the Ninth Order concerning measures against the Jews.
1) Prohibition against the frequenting of places of entertainment and other public venues.
It is prohibited for Jews to frequent places of entertainment and other public venues in general. Special restrictions will be designated by the SS and Chief of Police.
2) Restrictions on visits to commercial establishments.
Jews may not enter department stores, retail stores, and artisans’ shops to do their shopping or to shop for others except between the hours of 3 and 4 p.m.
Although the novel was greatly enjoyable and I was interested in the characters, the fragmented nature of the story-telling and the multiple character viewpoints meant that while there was a microscopic focus on some characters, the book lacked an overall sense of day to day life in the Channel Islands during the occupation. Yet this is perhaps to be expected in a book where the main characters are Jewish inhabitants who become increasingly marginalised and are sometimes forced to hide away from the authorities, living in basements and even ruins. My main concern, however, was a romance between Marlene and a starving refugee, which began with the promise of a powerful emotional and physical connection, but which unfortunately culminated in a sex scene littered with some cringe-inducing phrases, including the memorable “down into the nectary velvet” and “showered with dazzling diamonds”.
Nevertheless, War on the Margins was a novel that I did not want to put down. It is a story that is eye-opening, moving and enjoyable, and despite some relatively minor flaws I am sure it is a novel that I will revisit again.
Duckworth, ISBN-13: 978-0715638767, 245 pages, £12.99, hardback.