While Europe awaits liberation from Hitler’s troops, one small Normandy village is held together by the resourcefulness of a 22-year-old woman with a talent for baguettes.
Through the hungry, despairing years of the Nazi occupation, hopes of an Allied invasion give most of the inhabitants of Vergers, a French northern coastal community, something to live for, but not baker Emmanuelle. “They will never come,” she repeats, burdened by the deportations and deaths of those she loves. Yet, despite her pessimism, Emma is waging her own one-woman war effort, bartering and distributing eggs, dribbles of petrol, and secret extra loaves to keep the village alive. Kiernan’s (The Hummingbird, 2015, etc.) portrait of the terrors and systematic cruelty of German rule is rooted in fact but softened by the conventions of the genre. There’s light humor, like a pigpen too smelly for the Nazis to search, and then there’s the cast of more-or-less predictable characters. The Germans, seemingly conscripted from central casting, are either cloddish or cunning (“The colonel…a bald man, who kept his monocle in place by maintaining a constant sneer”), while Emma and her community tend to follow stereotype: Resistance stalwarts, turncoats, beauties, and wise elders. When the D-Day landing does eventually begin, Emma, in special peril since her deceptions have been exposed by a dastardly Nazi captain, must finally accept that change has arrived. In fact she is brought to tears by witnessing the sacrifice of “whole cities of men” so that she, her family, friends, and neighbors can live freely, and here the novel does achieve emotional resonance before returning to more well-worn dramatic turns and heroics.
Evoking a not exactly unfamiliar chapter of 20th-century history, Kiernan succeeds in engagement but not much originality.