Marius Gabriel takes us Under the Shadow of War
Ideally-speaking, if such a thing is even possible, wars would only affect the military factions fighting against each other, leaving civilians safe far behind the front lines. As you already well know though, this has pretty much never been the case: where there is war and strife, the innocent suffer in great masses through pain, grief, famine, violence, disdain, and any other vile ambitions humans are known for. In other words, countless are the situations where regular people are forced into highly irregular circumstances and must do things which they never expected possible for their own survival, something we witness in its full scope in Marius Gabriel’s The Parisians.
The novel takes us to 1940 when Paris had just been occupied by the Nazi forces, the streets swelling with their officers patrolling up and down, looking for a bit more damage to cause. While many French citizens manage to somehow avoid the ire of the Reich, three women are caught up in a web beyond their control. First, there is the American Olivia Olsen, working as a chambermaid in a hotel and trying to preserve her identity a secret while also making the most of an opportunity to help the resistance. Second, there is the famous designer Coco Chanel, who actually sees a potential benefit to working hand-in-hand with the new regime in town. Finally, the famous French actress Arletty shocks the entire country, and possibly even the rest of the world, with a love affair as provocative as it is forbidden.
With the war still raging on strongly as ever, the three women can only benefit from getting closer and closer to the enemy, each with their own agendas. However, as history already taught us, this particular war did not last forever, and when its ending finally arrives, what price will these women have to pay for their decisions?
A Story of Occupation
Ever since the Second World War, France has developed a rather unwarranted reputation as being a country which easily capitulates, and due to this its occupation flies outside the periphery of most people’s interests. As such, I am quite glad when I see books prepared to pay homage to this complicated time in history, depicting it for the difficult reality it presented for the people affected. As it turns out, it boiled down to a whole lot more than the French simply raising the white flag and gladly letting the Germans march through their cities.
Marius Gabriel has without the shadow of a doubt done every bit of research humanly possible into this era, or at least it’s the impression I’m getting from the incredible amount of detail and accuracy in his world and character descriptions. He takes many opportunities to educate the reader on the societal dynamics which prevailed in those times and make us feel the impact they had on the country’s citizens. The people he shows us, the clothes they wear, and even the manner in which they speak all work together to transport us back to a very particular past in our history.
As you might imagine, the subject matter throughout the whole book remains rather somber with rays of hope shining here and there, but at the same time the author strays from the overt brutality which has come to dominate war novels in recent years. He doesn’t need to present us with detailed atrocities to make us understand how evil the Nazis were or the sort of danger our protagonists find themselves in. In other words, Gabriel knows how to remain classy, even when talking about what is objectively one of the greatest evils in human history.
Sleeping with the Enemy
For some countries during the Second World War, cooperating with the enemy was a crime punishable by death, no matter the circumstances or the results of the cooperation; these people were simply deemed as traitors. However, reality is often more complicated than our imagination allows us to believe, and there are those who simply had no other recourse, which is precisely the situation the American Olivia finds herself in. Out of the three women she is definitely the leader of the show, and much of the plot sees her graduating from a young artist into a very capable spy in her own right.
From a pure entertainment standpoint, it’s quite thrilling to follow her as she navigates the deep waters of having to hide her American identity while being literally surrounded by the enemy, eventually making contact with the resistance and putting her proximity to the Nazis to good use. There are plenty of suspenseful cat-and-mouse elements which come into play, especially as we progress further into the story, and for the most part Olivia’s accomplishments are actually believable. While she does benefit from some good fortune here and there, the missions she undertakes and the methods she uses are generally within the realm of realism and not too difficult to imagine.
At the same time as we have the traditional plot of the good characters fighting against the bad guys, we also have the interesting stories of Coco Chanel and Arletty who are there to show us a different side of the coin when it comes to people who cooperated with the Nazis. Without spoiling too much about them, they are definitely the kinds of stories which push us to think about what it would take for us to cooperate with the enemy, whether it’s the promise of immense wealth or true love the likes of which we’ll never know again. In the end, I believe you’ll come to agree with the author about there being very little black and white morality when it comes to war… only the circumstances we find ourselves thrust into.
The Final Verdict
The Parisians by Marius Gabriel is one of the more enjoyable and well-researched World War II novels about occupied France I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent memory. Everything from the setting, to the plot and the characters is crafted with a meticulous voice, taking care to entertain and educate us every step of the way. If you enjoy war novels which focus more on the civilian side rather than military, then I strongly recommend you give this book a shot.
Marius Gabriel is an artist as well as a romance and mystery writer from South Africa. He published over thirty novels under the pseudonym Madeleine Ker since 1983, and under his real name a few best-selling mysteries as well as historical novels. Some of his more prominent works include The Wilder Shores of Love, The Original Sin, The Seventh Moon and Gabon.