The Soldier’s Wife – Margaret Leroy
Reviewer: Sheri de Grom
Nazis are bombing Cherbourg, France in June of 1940. They will soon be invading the Channel Islands where Vivienne de la Maire waits for the German occupation to begin.
Vivienne remembers when she first came to LeColombier with Eugene. She had lived in London her entire life. Eugene had said, “Vivienne, darling, I want you to love my island.” She was already pregnant with Blanche.
The author carefully and without malice allows the reader to become acquainted with Vivienne’s husband. It’s clear before Vivienne reaches her new home on the island that Eugene expects his new bride to take over the complete care of his mother, Evelyn. Evelyn is a semi-invalid and a devout Christian.
The reader can’t blame Eugene completely for Vivienne’s lack of feelings for her husband. After all, she married the first man she went out with. Eugene made her feel settled in and taken care of—although she didn’t feel passion.
Before Eugene left to fight on the front, Vivienne had walked in on him and another actor in a sensuous moment at the local community theater. Vivienne and Eugene never talked about the incident but their marriage was never the same after that.
It’s time for Vivienne to abandon the island and return to England.
Vivienne will not send her children alone ahead of her. She knows what it feels like to be an orphan. She won’t take a chance with her girls. Panic strikes when they do line-up for the boat to England. Vivienne realizes the vessel is far too small for everyone to be safe and considers how dangerous the seas are. She changes her mind about leaving for London and takes her chances with the Germans occupying the island.
Vivienne returns home with her daughters and finds that, although the war has not yet reached the shores of Guernsey, it has already begun because someone has ransacked her house. The family had been robbed and their heirlooms destroyed. It was a random act of vandalism by some thug taking advantage of the war situation.
Many of the homes on the island have been vacated by the locals and are now occupied by German officers. Such is the case for the house next to Vivienne’s.
Many laws have been laid down for the islanders to abide by and the toughest one for Vivienne to follow is the ten o’ clock curfew. She’s often walked through the gardens and orchards at night after the girls are asleep and now this simple pleasure has been taken from her.
. . . Pg98[I pass into my orchard between the quiet old trees, whose branches are bending already with the weight of swelling fruit. I am safe at last; no one will find me here. I only have to cross the lane, and I will be home.
“Mrs. de la Mare.”
A sudden voice in the darkness behind me. No foot fall.
I’m so frightened. All the fear that I try to keep tamped down leaps up at me out of the night.
“Mrs. de la Mare,” he says again.
It’s one of the men from Les Vinaires. Not Captain Richter, who warned me about the curfew. It’s the other man, the one I saw in the lane, the one with the scar.]. . .
The officer and Vivienne exchange pleasantries in the orchard to include sharing the intimacies of a cigarette. The officer tells her his name is Gunther Lehman and that she should call him Gunther. Vivienne also learns that he’s married and has a young son. Sexual tension sparks as Vivienne argues with herself about why she shouldn’t accept a cigarette as Gunther leans in close to light it for her.
The following morning, Gunther’s cigarette lighter sparkles. It’s on the stump of a tree near where they’d been talking the night before. She picks it up and looks at it shining in the palm of her hand. Vivienne’s memory of Gunther’s presence is vivid and immediate. She can see his right hand holding the lighter, his left hand cupping the cigarette, sheltering it from the night air that might threaten to put out the flame. She imagines she can smell the scent of his closeness. See the grace of his gestures and the veins that show through his skin. She puts the lighter in her apron pocket.
The following morning her nephew drops off a bag of potatoes from a good friend. She wants to offer him a cup of coffee and goes to the tin and begins to scrape the corners.
“That’s okay. Auntie. A glass of water will be swell.”
. . . Pg112[The next day I made my final cup of coffee, scraping the last trace of powder from the bottom of the tin. The coffee is very dilute: it’s really just hot water with a faint brown color. I take it to the table outside my door. I’m going to pretend it’s the real thing.] . . .
The captain leans over her garden gate and asks if he might come in. Vivienne’s unsure what to say. Yes seems wrong but so does no. The captain enters the courtyard while she’s trying to make up her mind. There are three empty chairs at the table but Vivienne doesn’t ask him to sit down.
She thinks Gunther looks different in daylight, less imposing than in the orchard at night. He tells her they have coffee and she refuses. Their conversation continues and he tells her, “How you wrap your hands around the cup. This is a special moment for you. A peaceful moment.”
Vivienne isn’t sure why it’s important to Gunther that she accepts his gifts, but after months of them having nothing but boiled potatoes, she accepts a bar of chocolate. For the girls, she tells herself.
Her mother-in-law may suspect something is going on because she makes excuses that she can no longer eat chocolate. Before Vivienne gives the chocolate to the girls, she breaks off two small squares for herself to have later.
. . .Pg127[When everyone is in bed, I open the kitchen cupboard and take out the pieces of chocolate I was keeping for myself, briefly wondering why I’m doing this, why I’ve chosen to eat it secretly. I put the first piece in my mouth, feeling the surge of sweetness through me. It’s smoothly velvet, melting on my tongue; and the taste, after months of bland food, is somehow exotic, hinting of the tropics, of abundant plantations and warm starlit nights. I eat it slowly; hold it in my mouth for a very long time.]. . .
Margaret Leroy clearly relays to the reader that while the people living on Guernsey are facing the evils of war on a daily basis, she opens up an avenue of thought about what it was like to be a German soldier during the height of Hitler’s reign and how there’s two sides to every story.
An example of this behavior is in Chapter 27. The two girls are playing and Millie, the youngest daughter, falls and scrapes her knee. Vivienne cleans it the best she can but she’s out of medical supplies and there’s none to be had on the island. All supply lines to the island have been cut off. Millie cries into the night.
There’s a knock on the door and it’s the most stern of the German officers from next door. He tells Vivienne they can hear the loud noise in their house. She thinks he’s there to tell her to keep her daughter quiet. Instead, he has a medical bag with him and tells her he was a surgeon in his life before the war and he’d be happy to help the little girl.
Vivienne isn’t sure if she should let him in or not but she can’t stand to hear Millie cry and she’s sure an infection is setting in.
The officer is kind with Millie. He cleans and dresses the wound and leaves medication for her.
Vivienne thanks the officer for his kindness and asks him if he misses being a surgeon.
. . .Pg134[“I miss it very much.” His expression darkens; his face has a hollowed-out look. “But many people are missing things in these troubled times, as we know. The ones who make the decision have other plans for our lives. As always.”]
The lives of Vivienne, her children, her mother-in-law, and all islanders are hard. They do without and only a few continue to hope the British Army will remember them should Hitler be defeated. There’s little food and Vivienne accepts rations from Gunther for the children. She can only accept the smallest amount lest others become suspicious.
Gunther tells Vivienne he likes to draw and that he would like to sketch her. She’s hesitant. As he’s leaving, she studies her hands and says, “It would have to be when Millie and Blanche are asleep. It would have to be late. Maybe ten o’clock?”
He says my name rather slowly, as though he doesn’t want to let go of it. Around us is the gentle quiet of the slumbering house, where everyone else is sleeping.
He has a drawing pad and pencils in a leather case, and a bottle of brandy, which he holds out to me. It has a French label. It looks expensive.
“This is to say thank you,” he says.
It seems an age ago that I tried to refuse his gift of chocolate.
I take two brandy glasses from the china cabinet—the only ones that weren’t smashed on the day we nearly went on the boat. I put them on the piano. He pours the brandy. As he hands me my drink, he touches his glass to mine; the bright, assertive clink of glass is loud in the silence between us. I gulp the brandy and feel it warming me through, feel my edges soften.]. . .
The time Vivienne spends with Gunther is the only time that seems sane to her. No one has enough to eat. There’s no material to make clothing from and everything is worn out, no firewood for winter warmth, and all vehicles have been confiscated to include bicycles. Their shoes have worn through the soles. She attempts to keep a cheerful mood for her children but as news trickles in from the front of local men and boys being killed by the Germans; daily life becomes harder and harder.
Of one thing Vivienne is sure, she has fallen in love with Gunther, and he’s an officer in the German Army. She tries to make herself feel guilty but has a difficult time doing so.
. . . Pg171[I lie with my head on his chest, listen to the quiet beat of his heart. He has his hand in my hair. We say nothing, and the silence is the sweetest thing. I hadn’t known that sex could take you to a place of such peace.]
Margaret Leroy writes a story of compassion and empathy. It’s a story of how ordinary people simply try to survive in the most trying of times. It’s a story about war and a story about love.
. . .Pg193[Often I am afraid—that another letter will come, or that one of Johnnie’s eager friends will paint a swastika on the wall of my house. I worry that someone who suspects me will whisper to Evelyn or Blanche, will tell them about me and Gunther. And when I think that, I feel how fragile everything is—how my whole life here could be torn apart.]. . .
The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy is a beautiful and hauntingly sad story. Man’s brutality contrasts with the daily lives of Vivienne and the other islanders and everyone is touched. No one escapes the tentacles of a war. The author’s lyrical prose reveals a stunning and evocative description of a woman’s relationship with her fellow islanders, her children, her lover, and her husband.
I unconditionally recommend this novel for book clubs and individual readers alike. The Soldier’s Wife was my first read by Margaret Leroy. I’ll not hesitate to purchase her future novels. I’ve also purchased her back list—you’ll be hearing more about the previous works of this amazing storyteller.