The Woman from Saint Germain is a novel by Australian author J.R. Lonie (aka John Lonie, screenwriter, playwright and script editor). It’s 1941 and published American author, Eleanor Gorton Clarke has been living in Paris for over twenty years. But now Paris is occupied by the Germans, and the climate has become rather less friendly for Americans and decidedly dangerous for Eleanor’s Jewish acquaintances. Both she and her favourite English-language bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, have attracted the unwelcome attention of a certain Nazi Major, so it’s time to leave.
But leaving turns out to be more of a challenge than she had anticipated, especially as she carries in her pocket the first edition of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake on which Major Krolow had fixated. Then circumstances conspire to wed her fates to those of an objectionable young man, a sneering, if attractive, communist Jew named Henk. Neither is happy about the situation, but it seems they are on the run from the Nazis together.
When Secret Field Police Captain Anton Bauer hears about the disappearance of two Wehrmacht Landsers near Nevers, he quickly takes on the case. His role is Criminal Investigation and when their bodies turn up in the River Allier, he has a murder inquiry on his hands. As he treads a careful line between the Gendarmes and the Gestapo, all the while relying on virtually no sleep and heavy use of methamphetamine to keep him operating, the two dead soldiers come to represent, in his mind at least, his sons, both soldiers fighting on different battle fronts.
Initially the narrative is Eleanor’s, but a quarter of the way in, it alternates with events from Bauer’s perspective as he hunts for his killers; then there are occasional peeks into the rather enigmatic thoughts of young Henk. While he plays a significant role, the reader knows him principally through what he chooses to reveal to Eleanor.
Eleanor is a complex character, fiercely independent, but also weighed down by the burden of grief and loneliness for her dead lover. Scathingly critical, in her thoughts, of Henk with his kitten, she herself gets away with doing some incredibly stupid things, many of which point to her unrelenting vanity and American arrogance.
Bauer’s position is an interesting one, probably not often thought about, and his agenda is quite different to that of the other occupiers: the soldiers, and the Gestapo. He often reveals a more human side to the occupying force.
The story is perhaps a little slow at the start, and sometimes feels a bit repetitive; while certain parts of the plot are a little predictable, there’s a twist that will surprise even the most astute reader (and about which not all readers will not be pleased).
Because most of the story takes place over a period of two weeks during 1941, with an epilogue-like chapter in 1943, the fate of certain characters and the aftermath of some actions is never known, so the feeling of things unresolved may irritate some readers. A map showing the Vichy and Occupied areas of France and the main towns featured would have been an appreciated inclusion. As the chase hots up in the final chapters, this novel proves impossible to put down.
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Simon & Schuster Australia