Tag Archives: World War II

Souvenir de temps perdu

Two very different novels, both revisiting France in World War II.

Manda ScottA Treachery of Spies is a thriller, as well as a police procedural that starts in March 2018 with a ritualized killing. Manda Scott has revived her detective Captain Picaut, last seen in an extreme trauma unit having suffered burns to the right hand side of her body. [Into the Fire]

Picaut has reported back fit for duty just as a new crime scene emerges in an Orléans car park. In a stolen, or borrowed, Citroën BX there is a hideously mutilated, but still obviously beautiful, elderly woman of about ninety five; killed by three shots, one to the head and two to the chest, and with her tongue cut out.

She has identification papers, elegant (but not French) clothes and apart from the grotesque manner of her death, there seems to be no reason why she is where she is, or indeed who attacked her.

The thriller switches between present day Orléans and the search for answers to this and other killings and 1940-44 in Occupied France and the activities of the Résistance and SOE As one might expect from this talented writer the plots, double crossings, red herrings and altered identities are numerous. The team on the ground in 2018 have to follow leads that reach right back to a period in France even before some of them were born.

The chapter headings make it quite clear which period we are in, but the many different identities that were taken up by members of the Résistance and SOE makes it important to keep a firm grasp of who everyone is, at which point in time – for all is not what it seems.

Captain Picaut is struggling to see the direction that this investigation is taking, and one of the hazards lies in the very people who seemed to be helping.

The second novel by Sebastian Faulks is in familiar territory for him, though a very different and blistering novel, quite unlike Birdsong and Charlotte Grey.

FaulksTwo characters descend on modern day Paris. Tariq from Morocco, in pursuit of his mother’s family, and Hannah, an American, who is doing some post doctoral research into the lives of women in Paris during the Occupation.

We meet Tariq first, just at the point at which he makes the decision to go to Paris, he has no money and therefore goes under the radar; his first encounter once in France is with Sandrine and together they hitch-hike to Paris, and find somewhere fairly insalubrious to doss down.

Next we meet Hannah, just arrived and with an address to find, a small flat which she is renting for a few months. She later finds Sandrine, weakened and feverish, who she takes in temporarily out of sheer kindness.

Once Sandrine is better, she goes back to where she thinks Tariq is, finds him and brings him back to Hannah’s flat. Thus far, so simple.

But Paris Echo is about re-membering (literally putting flesh upon ghosts). Hannah uses the audio recordings of women who lived in Paris during the Occupation, two in particular –  Mathilde Masson and Juliette Lemaire. Juliette died in 2001, so the record says but it appears that Mathilde might still be alive, though now about eighty five. Hannah listens to their accounts of what life was like for them and goes for a revealing interview with the old lady.

Meanwhile, Tariq keeps looking at women, and for people who might be able to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of his mother’s family. He does discover something, from a man who claims he is Victor Hugo, though it is not quite what he was expecting.

With two first-person narrators, it can sometimes takes a few words to work out who is speaking, but it quickly becomes apparent, for both Tariq and Hannah have very different pursuits and voices.

There are many and wonderful characters in this novel: friends (or ghosts) that Tariq makes and follows; lines of enquiry that Hannah follows and her friends in Paris and beyond. This is also a poignant love story, a journey of self-knowledge and an exploration of a period in France which was temporarily buried in shame and is slowly rising again to the surface.

There is one character, though, who is not fiction. One of the best and bravest SOE women of the betrayed Prosper circuit, Andrée Borrel. Caught, tortured and executed in the only concentration camp in France, the terrible and notorious Natzweiler-Struthof. Hannah takes the train from Gare de l’Est to Strasbourg, very probably the very train that took Andrée and her three companions, to the camp. There she has a very out-of-body experience and from which she returns, changed and aware of something she has missed.

It is also, in passing, a salute to the Paris Metro, very decidedly one of the more interesting characters in this sublime novel.

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Lenten Fast

If you have followed or read any previous posts, you may know that in Lent I eschew fiction. So far, my copy of the Archbishop’s Lent Book has failed to arrive, though according to the publisher has been sent. So in the meantime, I have been flitting between the Middle Ages in Britain (and France); nineteenth century poetry and painting through the life of Edward Lear and the twentieth century through the lens of Stalin.

Weir Queens 1So in that order. Queens of the Conquest (1066-1167) is the first part of Alison Weir‘s study of the female counterparts to England’s kings from William the Conqueror presumably to Richard III. The first volume begins with Mathilda, wife of William I, she was regent for him in Normandy while he was conquering England, and she was then crowned in her own right in 1068 in Westminster Abbey. It concludes in 1167 with The Empress Maud (also sometimes called Mathilda as these names were interchangeable, as were Mathilde and Mahaut). I have a slight failing here, as I find Maud endlessly fascinating and frightening. Her life spent fighting against Stephen for the right of her son Henry (II) to succeed to the throne led to a civil war in England that caused famine and destruction on a vast scale, a time which contemporary chroniclers described as “a time when Christ and His saints slept”. [Incidentally also the title of a book by Sharon Penman which describes in fiction this whole messy period – see my posts written in July 2013 and January 2014 ].

LearWhen not immured in the lives of the queens, I travel forward several centuries to Edward Lear, poet and artist through a new biography by Jenny Uglow. Mr Lear A life of Art and Nonsense is infinitely readable and enjoyable. Lear lived in a golden age, a man of great simplicity and charm whose rhymes have enchanted children for years, and for years to come but who was also an accomplished water colourist, a traveller and adventurer in Egypt, Corfu, Italy, Palestine and India; contemporary of  Darwin and Dickens; teacher to Queen Victoria to whom he gave drawing lessons; and friends with Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. But he fits uneasily into all these categories. His nonsense verses and limericks set a tone of frivolity not usually associated with Victorian England; his paintings are naturalistic, empty of humans – exquisite renderings of landscape – but devoid of any hidden message, so neither romantic nor mysterious, in a age of photography they would be described as photo-realism.

Stalin 2Both these volumes might be described as frivolous compared to the other book I am reading, of which I can only read around one chapter at a time. This is the second volume (and there is at least one more volume pending) of Stephen Kotkin‘s magisterial and forensically researched biography of Josef Stalin. This volume Stalin Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941 covers probably the bloodiest, most unforgiving section of Stalin’s dictatorship: ruined by paranoia, betrayals, executions and gulags. It brings us teetering upon the German invasion. Two terrible dictators pacing their rooms, playing the waiting game. Each entrapped in their own logic and about to descend into the furious, destructive and, ultimately, final stages of the Second World War.

MaiskyAnother marvellous volume, The Maisky Diaries, edited and compiled by Gabriel Gorodetsky fits neatly into this period and expands the horizons. Ivan Maisky was the Russian ambassador to London at this time, 1932 to 1943.  At a time when most people even remotely associated with the Stalin regime kept no written records of their activities for fear of reprisals, the Maisky diaries are remarkably frank and intact and shine a searching light upon a volatile and crucial period of European history.

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Dancing on the head of a pin

There is an old philosophical argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Some of the answers lie in the twelve-part chronicle of the twentieth century in Anthony Powell‘s series Dance to the Music of Time, itself an homage to Nicolas Poussin‘s painting of the same name in The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London.

spurling 1Now Hilary Spurling has brought out her biography of her great friend and mentor Anthony Powell, called unsurprisingly, Anthony Powell Dancing to the Music of Time.

There are other novels by Anthony Powell, as there are other books by Hilary Spurling. But this one is a marriage made in heaven, with plenteous angels dancing on pins.

Early on in her career, when she had only one book published, she was invited by AP to compile a sort of dictionary/encyclopaedia companion to Dance to the Music of Time which he had completed in 1975 with Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final volume of the series. This admirable little volume is called Invitation to the Dance, it is a handbook to the characters and situations found in the long series.spurling 2

Powell lived a typically literary life of the twentieth century, sometimes radically short of money and often hard pressed for the next payment; he had a wife, Violet and two children. Violet is described by a contemporary and friend as “the right-arm of Tony’s imagination”. This I suspect, exactly represents their long relationship and intense marriage. Violet, born of a great literary family herself, the Pakenhams, had a marvellous memory for the detail in the sequence, and was always the first reader of any of Anthony’s books; but this came into its own once he began the series, which was first of all to be a trilogy, but then extended almost by its own volition into a twelve volume sequence which took almost twenty five years to write, a new volume coming out at almost two yearly intervals.

The delight of this biography is that it puts names of real characters to their fictional avatars in The Dance. Some fall straight from life on to the page, others are a combination of characteristics drawn from life and combined in fiction and a few characters in The Dance are completely original.

In the three volumes that cover the war years, more characters fall straight from life into fiction and Anthony Powell had a nervous lunch with one of them when his commanding officer invited him to lunch; AP was expecting a dressing down and possibly a legal action, but to his relief the Colonel had mis-identified himself with another much more likeable and congenial military figure, actually based upon a Major in Anthony’s unit of the Welsh Regiment.

In this biography, we meet more literary giants than you can imagine.  The Powells were well connected through Violet’s family and had a web of literary friends through Anthony’s other work as a reviewer, variously for Punch and The Daily Telegraph and other papers and periodicals. So parties and country weekends seem to burst with talent:  Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, T S Eliot, Philip Larkin, John Betjemen, Graham Greene and many others; not confined to the literary arts they were also friends with the painters Edward Burra, Edward Bawden, Henry Lamb, Osbert Lancaster, Adrian Daintrey, John Banting and Augustus John; through their friendship with Constant Lambert they mixed with the ballet crowd, including Margot Fonteyn and Michael Helpmann and through the Pakenhams (Lords Longford et al) they were connected with many other strands of society, both literary and nobility, and were often found to be staying with the Duke of Wellington in Granada, Spain, with the Sitwells at Renishaw, at Pakenham Hall in Ireland (in case you have not made the connection Lady Antonia Fraser, later wife of Harold Pinter is one of many) and the Mitfords.

This makes for fascinating reading because it is a glimpse into the lives of writers, artists and others that have figured enormously in the lives of anyone between the ages of 95 to 65, because these were the writers of modern fiction when we were “growing up”.

This large and talented group were the social opposite of the other famous, not to say legendary, literary giants of a slightly earlier period, the Bloomsbury Group. While the later group were all equally “well connected”, their lives were predicated upon the different mores that followed the First World War and during and after the Second.

If you have never read anything by Hilary Spurling, there are twelve other books to choose from, ranging from biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett to Pearl Buck, taking on Matisse and Paul Scott and the Raj Quartet as well and if you have not read Anthony Powell – I sort of envy you, because you have such a treat in store. The Dance to the Music of Time is one of the very few re-reads I make, and I follow through by re-reading Marcel Proust The Remembrance of Things Past, for they are enduringly fascinating, wonderfully revealing and each time make the reader feel differently, as you perceive more layers and meaning in the increasingly familiar texts.

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On the Waterfront

Oops, no! Not the film!

The new novel by Pulitzer prize winner, Jennifer Egan was recommended to me by my favourite bookseller, Jessica at Primrose Hill Books NW1.

ManhattanManhattan Beach is set in the streets and clubs around the Naval Yards of New York just before Pearl Harbour and after. There are many characters but we see the whole picture through the experiences of three of them. Eddie Kerrigan, tall, unobtrusively handsome, husband and father to Anna and Lydia. His wife, Agnes, was once a Follies chorus girl, as was her sister, Brianne, who breezes in and out of the narrative like a breath of whisky!

Anna, who is a child at the start of the book, she is her father’s girl and often accompanies him while he is out and about, as a messenger for Donellen, a Union man on the docks. But once she reaches the nubile age of around twelve or so, he can no longer take her with him.

One of the characters that Eddie visits is Dexter Styles. A racketeer, owner of several bars and casinos, he is the principle pivot in this novel around whom things happen. Dexter is married into New York nobility (of a sort) although he is himself on the wrong side of the tracks in every sense: background, profession and the rest. However, his father-in-law, a wealthy banker has allowed the marriage to go ahead on some pretty stern limits.

As a young woman, Anna sees Dexter again, in one of his clubs. At the time she is working in the navel yards at a bench where she assesses the exact measurements of small widgets that are going into the building and repair yards for battleships, namely the USS Missouri and others. One day, she sees divers training off a barge in the East River and determines to train.

Not unlike The Woolgrower’s Companion, this is a book very much set in its time, the war having taken the men away so that women finally have an opportunity to do some real work, as opposed to housework. And in a similar way, this is also demonstrated in a film I saw at the London Film Festival, The Guardians about women on a farm in France during World War I.  Guardians

And as a complete coincidence, I saw the National Theatre production of Follies, the Stephen Sondheim musical; a completely overwhelmingly wonderful production, lavish, stylish and memorable. It must come on again sometime. Which chimes perfectly with the Manhattan Beach sisters, Agnes and Brianne.Follies

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It is good to be flexible

I have completely revised my opinion of Robert Harris, and to this I owe a debt of gratitude to a friend who has maintained faith with him. Independently, I thoroughly enjoyed An Officer and a Spy, his novel about the background to the Dreyfus Affair, an army scandal that rocked France in the 1890s and which led to Victor Hugo leaving France for exile after his rampant j’accuse campaign. The fact that Dreyfus was exonerated did not alter the opprobrium heaped on VC.

Then I was persuaded to read Robert Harris’ trilogy about Cicero, Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator, my icy heart slowly melted and I have enjoyed each of his latest, especially this last novel Munich.

Munich
As the title suggests, this is a novel about the historic, and fatally flawed, Munich Conference in September 1938. Switching between the lines of communication, both official and unofficial, of the German government of Adolf Hitler and his fascist partner Benito Mussolini, the Italian Duce, and the British government of Neville Chamberlain, with a walk on part for the French president Eduard Daladier (whom it has to be said, even historically, took a very passive position at this stupendous meeting), Robert Harris has constructed an almost hour by hour drama beginning at the point at which Hitler announced his intention of taking Sudetenland by force. This in spite of misgivings by his advisors some weeks before,  but after his first meeting with  Chamberlain at which he became convinced that Britain, and therefore France, would do nothing.  Robert Harris,  while outlining in detail the verifiable historic members of the process, has added two fictional characters whose actions played a small but vital part.

One of them, Paul von Hartmann, is very lightly based on the real life conspirator Adam von Trott. In this novel, Paul is part of a group of anti-Nazi Germans who intend to prevent war by stopping Hitler in his tracks, preferably by means other than outright assassination, which would only have created a martyr. Paul’s contact on the British side is a fellow Balliol graduate, Hugh Legat who is a parliamentary secretary, and both of them in this novel get themselves on to the teams that are travelling to Munich.

I suspect that it is not a plot spoiler to say that their attempts failed. It does not, one whit, alter the extreme tension of the novel, and the very near misses and subterfuges that went on as part of their story.

Even more compelling though, is the fleshing out of the real players, Chamberlain and his team, Hitler and his, because this story is told from the point of view of “before the worst happened”.

We all know now, that the annexation of Czechoslovakian Sudetenland was the prelude to a much wider land grab which precipitated the Second World War. But this novel takes us back to the moment when given different characters, or a different mind-set, or a different something, the catastrophe could have been avoided. Indeed, Neville Chamberlain thought that he had avoided it – “peace in our time” – his famous, now much derided, naïve belief after his private meeting with the Chancellor.

This is a most interesting, exciting and insightful look at those momentous weeks.

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Knitting, not reading (pace Stevie Smith)

Typical, nothing for weeks then three come along at once! I have been on a long knitting jag, with jerseys, blankets and cardigans flying off the needles, it becomes compulsive after a while, but impedes the reading, AudioBooks become the order of the day (& night)…

So what have we in mind today. Two books about World War II, a non-fiction treatment and a semi-fiction treatment and one book about the “Indian Wars”, that is to say the European Americans and what they then called Red Indians, now spoken of as Native Americans.

So I shall start with that one. Paulette Jiles has written many books about this period of American history, that is to say the Civil War and the Indian Wars.

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It was while writing a previous book, Enemy Women, that she came across the story of Britt Johnson. Moses Johnson with fifteen white women and  five black including children left the war torn areas and moved to North Texas. Britt Johnson was a manumitted African American (called negro, black or nigger at the time depending on the speaker), he took the family and settled in North Texas. Britt had a wife and three children. The Colour of Lightning is their story. How the Comanche and Kiowa descended on the settlement, killed one child and captured Mary and the remaining two children, went on to capture another woman, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, and her two grandchildren.

None of this was written down at the time, 1865-1870s or thereabouts, and was only recorded after Britt Johnson’s death by people who knew him, or had heard about him, in 1900. So Paulette Jiles has pieced together the myth and the historical facts as known and created a story that brings all the characters to life, most of the people in this book are real, one or two are like people that existed, like the Indian Agent, a pacifist Quaker named Samuel Hammond, sent for purposes that only God knew, to control and negotiate with the most war-like tribes: the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache.

Britt Johnson is real, he was away when his family were attacked, he determined to recover his family, and other captives and having accomplished that to set up as a freight-driver. This is the story of how this ambition was realised.

Samuel Hammond, however, is based, but lightly, upon a real Indian Agent called Lawrie Tatum and Samuel is in the novel in order to explore the dilemma facing the Quaker settlers from Philadelphia, who took no part in the Civil War (though Samuel drove an ambulance), and therefore were little regarded by many European (white) Americans, and were now part of the great re-settlement (in reservations) of the Native (Reds, as they were known) Americans. How does a pacifist deal with a tribal custom that includes killing, raping and mutilating victims, taking of captives and a nomadic life that cannot be contained in a reservation, no matter how big?
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This map shows the territory as it was in 1864-65.

The other two books are rather different. Hemingway at War by Terry Mort, rather speaks for itself. Much has been written, not least by Ernest Hemingway himself, about his escapades, much has been exaggerated, mostly by EH and much has been denigrated by others. Moonglow, on the other hand, is a fictionalised account of a grandfather’s experience in Europe, principally Germany, towards the end of World War II. In this book, Michael Chabon recounts the stories told him by his grandfather towards the end of his life, while in a hospital and dying, suddenly and for the first time, he began to describe incidents in his past life, especially those dealing with his experiences in Germany. The novel is an amalgam of things that Michael knew about his grandfather and also these revelations made almost when it was too late to press for details.

Both books in their own ways give us an account of that cataclysm which cannot but broaden our view of the conflict.

Hemingway, though a non-combatant, saw quite a lot of fighting at first hand as he attached himself to the American 22nd Regiment and went with them from Normandy right through to the liberation of Paris and on to Germany, until they were decimated at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, this small but intense part of the war was the bloodiest, most deadly encounter that the 22nd had experienced. Not unlike the Battle of the Bulge, it was fought in dense forest, with little or no room for deep trench defenses, and splinters of wood from blasted trees inflicting as many casualties and fatalities as ordinary shrapnel.PhotoScan (6)

Hemingway himself, claims to have killed at least 100 Germans, which as a journalist he was not entitled to do, but at the same time it was known that for him “enough was never enough” and he was inclined to dress it up a bit. Strangely, the one engagement about which he wrote not one sentence was Hürtgen, perhaps finally, “enough” was way too much. In any event, he left the combat zones for good and returned to Paris, a privilege not afforded to what remained of the 22nd, who fought on to Berlin.

Moonglow was, in many ways, a more satisfactory book. Maybe novels are always better at presenting messy, complicated lives in a digestible fashion. Chabon’s grandfather was also in Europe towards the end of World War II, but on a quite different mission. As a noted chemist and engineer himself, he was tasked with seeking out as many German engineers and chemist, especially those involved with the V1 and V2 Rocket programme, to find them, capture them and extradite them to America, preferably before the Russians.PhotoScan (4)

The other parts of the book present a wonderful eccentric, a talented engineer engaged in rocketry, even before the war. Passionate about space exploration, but also with a haunted and difficult married life. This is a truly remarkable book, by a wonderfully talented and inventive writer.

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Family secrets

Tolstoy is supposed to have said “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way“, the same can be said of family secrets, happy families have small secrets that do no harm; unhappy families seem to have secrets that can cause damage generation after generation. So it is with the two books I am writing about today.

conradThe one I read first was Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers. The two eponymous characters are scientists, they met at Cambridge, married when Eleanor fell pregnant, have four children and have been married some twenty five years. The children are all very different, but the third child, Caro is even physically different from the rest of the family.

But one quite outwardly ordinary day, Conrad fails to return from a conference in Germany. For a couple of days, Eleanor convinces herself that this is just because he missed his flight, she had the wrong day anyway or some fairly logical but unexplained reason. But soon, the continued silence, the fact that his colleagues seem perplexed by his non-appearance and her children’s concern force upon her than this is no ordinary absence.

Caro takes off to Munich in pursuit, Eleanor feels conflicted, was this the best option? But there is no stopping Caro, she will go and find him. Meanwhile, Eleanor overhears her other children discussing the possibility that she has “done away with him”.

During the course of this novel, we see both partners considering their past relationships; ones they have with other people as well as each other. The disappearance makes Eleanor review her behaviour, which has not been admirable and Conrad reviews the circumstances that have caused him to run and hide…

Professional conflict, work related stress and general busyness accounts for some of the fracture, professional jealousy also plays into the mix, and personal jealousy contributes to a fairly toxic situation. But it is not until there is a crisis on this scale that either of them take the necessary steps to resolve the failing marriage.  Inertia has caused them to carry on, both on a separate trajectory that is contributing to their lack of communication plus the dreaded secret – the uncovering of which has caused a leprosy of distrust to blight the marriage, the slow deadening of feelings…

Jane Rogers has the ability to observe human frailty with a warm and insightful gaze, to impart this on to the page in a way that packs an immense punch. To pick up almost any of her novels is to enter a world of awareness into characters that may be widely different in age and circumstance from our own and to inhabit their world completely for the next three hundred or so pages. Gifted and brilliant writing.

The second novel, also by a well known writer, is Cousins by Sally Vickers. This is a book after my own heart. It speaks to me of the sort of family I know, Northumbrians root and branch, with a pedigree that goes back generations and who have lived man and boy in the same house for many, many years. Dowlands, at the start of this novel, is in the hands of Hetta’s parents having been given over to them in a rather run-down state by Hetta’s grandfather. The book is told from the point of view of three women, all related to William Tye whose devastating accident is the focal point of the opening chapter.cousins

Hetta Tye is William’s younger sister, the older girl is called Sydella, know as Syd who lives in Jordan with her husband Omar. Hetta recounts all of the first section. Bell recounts the second section.  Bell is William’s aunt, sister of his father, and mother (single) of Cecelia always called Cele. Bell is a wild card, rackety and irresponsible but with a generous heart, in the eyes of the family she finally redeems herself.

As you might imagine, from the title of the book, William, Cele and Hetta are very close, and have been for as long as anyone could remember. Cele was often, not to say always, parked with William and Hetta either at Dowlands or at the house of their grandparents, Wilfred and Bertha Tye, always know as Fred and Betsy, while Bell was off with one partner or another.

Betsy, William’s grandmother, is the narrator in the third section and the final section returns to Hetta. There are more cousins, Fred and Betsy happen to be first cousins, they have three children, the eldest is Nathaniel, he also figures in this story, although even before the beginning of the novel he has died in an accident; another uncle who has died is Fred’s older brother who was killed in action.

This may all seem rather incestuous now, but reading around from books that include The Bible and many Victorian novels, the marriage of first cousins was not thought in any way odd or unsavoury or, even, unwise until quite recently. The Tye family are in no way unique, you only have to look at many Quaker family trees to find married first cousins, and as I said, Abraham sent Isaac off to marry one of the daughters of his brother.

Consanguinity and its consequences were not recognised until the mid-twentieth century. Inbreeding increases the risk of genetic disorders which leads to a decreased biological fitness, a fact which was only studied properly fairly recently. Parents with similar genetic mutations may be unaware of and unaffected by any disorder, however their children are at a higher risk and may be susceptible. Even second cousins who marry and have children, will have given their offspring a higher level  of risk than the rest of the population.

Cousins is not really about the genetic risks, but there is a definite undercurrent of family disasters being visited upon generation after generation. It is this that makes the novel so fascinating, the hidden histories that are slowly revealed, family secrets that impact one upon another. Collateral damage being how each event impacts on the rest of the group, in much the same way as a pebble thrown into a lake.

This is also a book about love and the risks that one will take, for love or through loving someone enough, or too much.

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