You figure out pretty early where this novel is headed: the Allied attempt to mislead German intelligence about where they’d invade in northern France. It figures in a lot of books, fictional and nonfictional, about World War II.
I was worried that the book would place all its chips slowly revealing something to me that I already knew about. But this happily goes well past that, and kept my interest to the last page.
There are lots of moral ambiguities here. The Frenchwoman Nathalie Mercier trains before the war to spy for the German Abwehr, but gets cold feet and flees when Germany invades France in 1940. They catch her and force her back into their service. She slips into Britain among the refugees from Dunkirk, finds nursing work, and gets herself transferred to a military hospital.
Owen Quinn, severely wounded when his ship sinks in the Med, starts a passionate romance with his nurse as he’s recovering, and shortly thereafter marries her. And he’s transferred to naval intelligence. He has no idea she’s using him. What will happen when he finds out?
The British, having caught and doubled Nathalie’s radio man, let her keep operating unknowingly so that they can funnel false intelligence back to Germany through her. In their own way they can be as ruthless as the Nazis. They don’t hesitate to use, fool or even expend their own people.
The Abwehr, for whom Nathalie works, is meanwhile the most anti-Nazi organ in Hitler’s government. Its head, Admiral Canaris, won’t employ Nazis. He maintains back channels to the Allied governments, he knows Hitler is losing and thinks the sooner the better. The Abwehr, the German foreign intelligence service and mostly after standard military and strategic intelligence, doesn’t have the taint of war crimes about it.
France itself is full of ambiguity. Very few of its citizens resist, although many more will claim to have been after D-Day. (Gerlis includes some factoids stunning if true: that no German soldier is killed in occupied France for an entire year after the French surrender, and that the first Germans seen by deported French Jews were when they got off the train at Auschwitz, because their arrest in France had been entirely handled by the French.)
Many collaborate and the rest just go along. Collaborators snap up the property of Jews who have fled or been arrested.
And Gerlis paints a darker side of Liberation here: one where kangaroo courts execute accused collaborators, and where denunciations of one’s neighbors continues just as it had when the Nazis ruled. The Resistance itself is a fraught business, where those who cross the Resistance run the risk of torture and murder, the same risk the maquis run if the Gestapo catches them.
No spoilers here, so I don’t want to say too much about how the plot develops. I give Gerlis credit, though, for taking it into some difficult areas. What does an Allied officer do when he finds out the wife he adores is a Nazi spy? What is a satisfactory resolution to this love story? Can Quinn ever forgive his own side for its deceptive use of him?