To tell the truth, much of this special work we do is quite boring. I think that’s why women are good at it. Our lives are already boring. (p 83)
Intelligence: knowing where the enemy is, what they are doing, what they are planning, what they are capable of. Information that gives a tactical advantage in war. One source of intelligence: unobtrusive eyes and ears. Add language skills to understand and code messages. Fine motor skills to write those messages in tiny letters or to pick locks. The people you would least expect. Women.
The true story of WW1 spy Louise de Bettignies is the launching pad for Kate Quinn’s novel, The Alice Network. Codenamed Alice Dubois (and nicknamed Lili in the novel), the “queen of spies” and her covert network worked behind German lines in northern France and Belgium. The information they passed to the British is credited with saving over 1000 lives. A message about the possibility of a German attack at Verdun planned for early 1916 was unfortunately not believed by the French military authorities. de Bettignies was arrested in October 1915 and died in prison in September 1918.
With any paper one sticks under their nose and plenty of self-possession, one can get through. Especially a woman. Sometimes I take an armload of parcels and bags and drop every single one as I try to find my identity cards, chatting all the while, and they wave me through out of shear irritation. (p 83)
The novel starts in 1947, with young American math major Charlie St Clair being dragged to Europe by her mother to “take care” of the “little problem” of her pregnancy out of wedlock. But Charlie has other ideas. She slips away from her mother to search for her cousin Rose, who disappeared at the end of WW2 in Nazi-occupied France. Charlie’s only clue leads her to London and Eve Gardiner.
Eve had been part of the Alice Network in WW1. Thirty years later, she lives a drunken and isolated life, haunted by the betrayal that was its demise.
The two women are thrown together in a search for ghosts from their lives and, as it turns out, a common enemy. Their accomplices are Finn – Eve’s Scottish cook and driver (with psychological war wounds of his own) – and his luxurious but aging Aston Martin Lagonda convertible.
Chapters alternate between Eve’s account of the espionage exploits in WW1 and Charlie’s account of the circumstances of her life and the search for Rose. The stories are tied together by the theme of women’s friendships and reliances.
While the intricacies of the WW1 story are more intriguing, the book also draws interesting comparisons of the two eras, in how women were treated and the attitudes toward them. Charlie cannot access her own money without her father’s consent. Both women face double standards for their sexual activities and must hide unwanted pregnancies for fear of judgment. War touches one directly and the other from a distance. They learn to trust each other, despite their differences.
Does anyone get over it? I looked at the chair where Eve had sat. Three of us chasing painful memories across the wreckage of two wars; no one appeared to be over much of anything. (p 338)
It’s been a while since my last book review. Most of my reading these days is not related to WW1. When a WW1 book sneaks into the pile, I share my thoughts here.