Flashbacks recalling a WWII massacre force a woman to confront her past—in Lucas’s somber debut.
On June 10, 1944, a detachment of SS passes through the bucolic town of Oradour sur Glane, near Limoges. The war and Nazi occupation of France have had little impact on this sleepy hamlet, whose complacent inhabitants suspect nothing when ordered to assemble in the town square, ostensibly for an identity check. The men are shot, the women and children herded into a church and immolated, and the town is put to the torch. Christine Lenoir, six-year-old daughter of a prosperous pharmacist, is playing in the woods with a friend when the shooting begins. Rescued, she’s taken to a convent, where she is raised by nuns who conceal her origins from her, except for a name, Oradour. The nuns, her “angel mothers,” heroically provide her and other war orphans with the closest thing available to a loving family. Christine eventually moves to Paris to attend the Sorbonne. Only later, when, as a reporter on assignment in the US, she watches the televised shooting of Oswald, do inklings of Christine’s past resurface in dreams. She revisits Oradour, now a shrine to 642 victims, including her parents and brothers. The caretaker of the ruins, another survivor, helps reconstruct her memories. When she returns to Paris, she is able, with the help of a family trust, to become a historian of lesser-known mass-murders and aid two Holocaust survivors whose own family holdings were stolen. Lucas’s narrative weaves in and out of the past, and her pervasive elegiac tone is numbing, sometimes mercifully so. Christine’s point of view is so affectless that she is a better witness to a horrific (and historically grounded) event than she is an explorer of her own emotional terrain. But, as in any account of atrocities, only a certain distance permits the reader to face such savagery.
Less a novel than a meditation, but, as such, spellbinding and disturbing.