Vivienne de la Mare’s marriage has been fading for a while, so she doesn’t actually mind very much when her husband goes off to fight in World War II, leaving her, her mother-in-law Evelyn, and her two daughters alone on the island of Guernsey. Vivienne has many other problems to deal with, such as Evelyn’s fading memory, her elder daughter’s budding womanhood, and the difficult choice of whether to leave the island. Just when Vivienne chooses to stay, the Germans occupy Guernsey, and Vivienne faces the most pressing problem of all as she falls in love with a German soldier, Gunther, even as she witnesses the atrocities committed by his fellow soldiers right before her eyes.
After I flat out adored The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society I knew I wanted to read more World War II fiction centred around the occupation of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. This book fit right in with my plans; smooth and easy to read, it nonetheless dealt with a lot of the very difficult issues surrounding German presence on the island as well as Vivienne’s own struggle to continue to live a meaningful and content life in the shadow of so many other problems.
Because Vivienne’s husband has been rather openly cheating on her, she has very little guilt about betraying him, but with a German soldier? That’s a whole different story, because Vivienne can see all too well the suffering that other Germans are inflicting on others. She doesn’t have to rely on tales she hears when there are dying men in front of her eyes. But she knows that Gunther is different, even as she questions how deeply she can ever truly know a person. It’s thoughtfully and sensitively handled; Leroy speaks to both the horrors of Nazi acts even as she shows us that not every soldier was behind what was happening.
At the same time, it’s a considerate look at the difficulties that children go through in wartime. Vivienne’s elder daughter longs to have the glamorous life she’s read about in so many places, but it simply isn’t possible with rationing. She dreams of London and fancy dresses, but she’s trapped on Guernsey and Vivienne is the one who must tell her so and attempt to keep her daughter happy in the midst of deprivation and struggle.
And there’s Vivienne’s own self-discovery, as she starts to come out of the shell that years of an unloving marriage have left her in, with difficult decisions to make completely on her own. Her indecisiveness at the beginning of the book changes as she make choices, and whether they turn out correct or not, we can see that Vivienne’s experience through the war years have changed and strengthened her.
Overall, The Collaborator is a very moving and sensitive read, dealing with issues unique to wartime and universal to women at the same time. Well worth it for those who enjoy historical and women’s fiction.
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