With so many other distractions vying for my time and attention over the past couple of weeks it’s taken me longer than it should have, but I finally got around to finishing Libby Cone’s War on the Margins over the weekend. So here are my afterthoughts on what turned out to be a memorable novel.
I won’t dwell on the synopsis of War on the Margins or its background too much (because more information on this can be found in my forethoughts), except to say that the novel centres on the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during Word War Two, and the effects that the Occupation had on the resident Islanders. War on the Margins is a largely fictional work, however its author having originally used the research material gathered for this novel for a history thesis, grounds much of this story in fact as well as fiction.
From the outset I’ve got to say that War on the Margins is a real eye-opener. I was fully aware of the fact that the Channel Islands were occupied during WW2 before reading this novel, but I had no idea to what extent the Islands and its residents suffered under Nazi control. This novel really does bring home just how widespread starvation and persecution were on the Channel Islands during the period, and it ain’t pretty!
The novel follows a number of primary story threads, the main one being the Occupation experiences of the chief protagonist, Marlene Zimmer. Marlene works for the Aliens Office on Jersey, and after gaining an advance insight into the Occupation measures being implemented by the Germans, she discovers that her distant Jewish heritage is detrimental to her safety. So she quickly flees to begin a new life elsewhere on the island; a covert one that involves few pleasures and much indignation. I’ve got to say that I really like the author’s treatment of this character. She evolves Marlene from being a woman largely devoid of ambition and unsure of her own identity, into one of the complete polar opposite. My only complaint is that the author didn’t spend more time exploring Marlene’s evolution (more on that later), but putting that aside, Marlene’s story is a definite highlight of the novel.
Another primary focus of War on the Margins is on the French artists and lovers – Lucille and Suzanne, the ‘real life’ island residents who inspired the novel in the first place. Their relationship brings another aspect to the ‘marginal’ theme of the novel, and although no exploration of homosexual persecution is explored (presumably because it never emerged as an issue), the relationship between the lovers is, and what emerges as a consequence of Cone’s excellent crafting of the story, is the depth of love and devotion that the two artists showed for one another; a depth that undoubtedly nurtured an inner strength in both women and kept them motivated during that great time of adversity. That adversity reaches its zenith when both women were arrested for suspected clandestine activity and jailed in the local prison. Here I feel the novel really reaches its zenith too, with the author making full use of the actual prison letters and poems of Lucille Schwob to enrich the story.
Aside from an additional couple of less significant story threads, War on the Margins also focuses on the plight of political prisoners shipped to Jersey en masse, to provide the workforce for building construction. The main ‘player’ here is Peter, a Polish political prisoner, who eventually ties up with one of the other main characters of the novel. Again I liked the author’s treatment of the character, at least in the initial stages of his introduction. Here in Peter the reader sees the stoic resoluteness of a prisoner wronged for his beliefs, surviving in an environment pretty much akin to Hell. It’s powerful stuff from Cone and aside from the descriptions of punishments served out to deserting or non-compliant German soldiers, it’s the portion of the novel that provides the most graphical impact.
As good as War on the Margins is though, it’s not without a couple of minor niggles in my opinion. I’ve already mentioned that the novel follows a number of primary story threads, and while these are all tightly controlled and interwoven well into the narrative, the number of story threads included is perhaps a little too ambitious for a novel of this length. I feel there’s not enough focus spent on a particular story thread at any one time to allow the reader to fully connect with a character, or to sympathise with the situations that they find themselves in. There are some dire situations created in this novel, mainly centering around characters ‘holing up’ in squalid conditions such as cellars, prisons, transport ships etc., and while Cone paints the story of their plight superbly well to some extent, you never really get a total sense of sympathetic connection with them.
My other minor niggle with the novel is centered around the flow of the story. I’m delighted that the author has seen fit to include official documents and orders in this novel, both for historical reference and context-setting, but the documents are presented verbatim, with their expanse usually filling a number of pages. All good and well but this had the affect of interrupting the flow of the story for me, and I found I needed a paragraph or two afterward, just to get back into the story. I’m well aware of the importance of these documents to the novel but perhaps it would have been better only embedding extracts of these documents in the narrative flow, and linking these extracts to full reproductions in an appendix at the back of the book.
Overall though I wouldn’t let any minor complaints that I have put you off reading War on the Margins for yourself. My annoyances may well be just idiosyncratic, and regardless, they do little to interfere with the ‘enjoyment’ of this novel. This is truly an accomplished work by Libby Cone, not least for its historical value, and it is one that should be read by anyone who has the slightest interest in the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands. Cone should be celebrated for what she has achieved in War on the Margins, for aside from illustrating the suffering that the Channel Islanders endured, she’s spotlighted the degree to which Nazi persecution of the Jews extended; a persecution in this case, that offers a chilling glimpse into the fate that would no doubt have awaited Jews in mainland Britain should the Nazis have succeeded with their belligerent expansion.
Libby Cone’s biggest success in War on the Margins though is undoubtedly her ability to weave the real-life prison diaries and poems of Lucille Schwob into the novel (along with the other primary source documents to a lesser degree). I said in my forethoughts that I was intrigued to find out how successfully she would manage this and I’m happy to say (although I would have liked to have seen more), that she’s achieved it admirably. This on its own makes War on the Margins a worthwhile read, and one I highly recommend. Just be aware that War on the Margins isn’t a casual ‘pick up and put down’ kind of novel though. It’s one of these novels that requires a fairly high level of engagement and plenty of cogitation. Put the effort in though and I guarantee that you’ll be richly rewarded.