Faulks’s latest may lack the breadth of Birdsong (1996) or Charlotte Gray (1999), his usual deep sensibilities and conjurer’s gift for evoking time and place are what matter.
The political and psychic scars of WWI remain everywhere in France in the 1930s, even in the drab provincial city of Janvilliers – to which, one rainy night, young Anne Louvet makes her way by train to take up her new post as waitress at the shabby hotel called the Lion d’Or. From the start, there’s a mystery about Anne (Louvet isn’t even her real name), but there are also the allures of her quick intelligence, ready sense of humor – and her appealingly attractive good looks. So it is that the crass André Mattlin, architect and roué, sets his sights on her, while Anne’s own wiser and deeper heart goes out to one Charles Hartmann, who – with his barren and unhappy wife Christine – lives in the ancient mansion outside of town that he’s inherited from his father and hopes to repair. Anne’s interest in Charles is returned, and when Charles tells his wife he’s needed in Paris on business (he’s a lawyer), he in fact takes Anne on a weekend to the comfortably splendid country house of an old friend. From there on, once love is declared, the tale moves toward an ending that will break the hearts of some, strike fear into others. When Anne finally tells Charles her extraordinary, pathetic mystery, not a great deal by way of plot is released, but the novel’s truest assets are brought to vivid life indeed. The atmosphere of between-the-wars anxiety tips toward a new foreboding, making Charles’s being partly Jewish (the vile, devilish Mattlin uses this against him); various awful memories of WWI; the weakness of France’s governments; and the true horror of Anne’s girlhood secret all blend into a story of quiet and terrible power.
Faulks remains at the peak of his considerable strength.