All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The French Gift by Kirsty Manning

on March 31, 2021

The French Gift 
Kirsty Manning
Allen & Unwin
2021, 305p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A World War II story of female friendship, longing and sacrifice through war and loss, bringing together the present and the past.

A forgotten manuscript threatens to unravel the past …

Fresnes Prison, 1940: Margot Bisset, a former maid from the Riviera, finds herself in a prison cell with writer and French Resistance fighter, Josephine Murant. Together, they are transferred to a work camp in Germany, where the secrets they share will bind them for generations to come.

Present-day Paris: Evie Black lives above her botanical bookshop with her teenage son, Hugo. Nursing a broken heart, Evie receives an unexpected letter; she clutches at an opportunity to spend a magical summer with Hugo on the Cote d’Azur.

It’s here, on the Riviera, that the past envelops them and Evie attempts to unravel the official story of a famous novelist. If she succeeds, a murder from a lifetime ago may be solved.

Inspired by a true story of iconic French Resistance fighter, Agnes Humbert, whose secret journal shed light on a little-known aspect of World War II, The French Gift will captivate readers from beginning to unforgettable end. 

I really enjoyed this book – it had me gripped just from the blurb and I couldn’t wait to started. I raced through it in a couple of hours in an afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The French Gift is a dual-timeline: in the present day, Evie is responsible for the estate of her deceased husband’s great aunt, managing it for her teenage son. Josephine was a highly successful crime author, survived imprisonment during the German occupation of France in World War II and was even moved to a worker camp in Germany during that war. A museum wants to curate an exhibition on Josephine and Evie is happy to assist. Josephine has kept all her original manuscripts and there are other pieces of interest as well – as well as the whisper of the ‘lost manuscript’ – the first book Josephine ever wrote that was rejected by a publisher. If that could be found and published now, it would provide money for Josephine’s foundation.

In 1940, Margot was a maid arrested for murder, sharing a cell with Josephine. The two women forge a strong and deep friendship during their time together with Josephine assuring Margot that once they are free, she will prove her innocence one way or another, using her connections in the French Resistance and her skills as a journalist.

I really enjoyed both timelines in this story. In the historical timeline, Margot is a young servant caught up in a dangerous game that she has no idea of the ramifications until it is way too late. She is naive and sheltered, aghast at some of the decadence on display by the people that employ her. From seeing that, Margot goes to being imprisoned awaiting trial for murder. After her trial, she and Josephine, as young and relatively healthy bodies, are sent to a workers camp, working with rayon after the supplies of cotton and linen were cut off. They are making material for the German soldiers uniforms and civilian clothes and the conditions are incredibly grim. The women get severe acid burns from their work and they are starved, beaten, degraded and humiliated. Treated as less than human. Whenever I read a book set in a camp in WWII, I think that’s always what gets me the most, the dehumanisation of the workers and imprisoned by those in charge, be they Jewish, French, Russian, etc.

Evie in the current timeline, is struggling with a loss and parenting her almost-adult son Hugo. He is about to finish his secondary education and make his own way in the world but is at that age where Evie is finding it really difficult to connect with him. The chance to spend some time at Josephine’s place on the Cote d’Azur will mean not only will they get to learn about Josephine’s life as they go through her papers and belongings to select things for the museum but also she will get to spend some time with Hugo before he heads off on a gap year and then to university. It also allows her to meet a handsome curator who makes her realise that she still has plenty of living left to do and that things can get better.

There’s a lot of intrigue in the plot – what happened to the first manuscript, what really happened the night Margot was arrested for murder as well as Josephine’s work with the Resistance and also, how both went in and only one came out. Josephine kept a record of her time in prison in France and also in the workers camp in Germany. There are very few personal recounts of WWII from a female perspective and this one has an inspiration by one real such account, which I definitely need to read now. The friendship Josephine and Margot built was truly wonderful to read – that during the bleakest of times they each had the other for comfort, to find a humorous moment, to defend and support each other. Right to the very end. I did guess the twist pretty early but I don’t think that’s unexpected, it’s most about the journey in a way, the how and the why rather than the actual what…well for me anyway!

I really enjoyed this. It’s well written, well researched and has definitely fuelled my desire to read a few more first person accounts of this time, even though I know they’ll be difficult reading. I loved the setting, the juxtaposition of the decadence of the time before Margot’s incarceration with what comes after, the extremes of that period. It’s something I’ve come across in other stories recently, set around WWII, how where you are and your wealth could totally remove you from the devastation, poverty and death taking place in other areas. In the modern day period, Evie is at a crossroads, almost finished “raising” her son, still grieving but also sensing the possibilities and what her life could hold in the future.

Definitely recommend this one!

9/10

Book #46 of 2021

The French Gift is book #21 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

It also qualifies for my 2021 Historical Fiction Reader Challenge – it’s book #10

 


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