When The Sky Fell Apart by Caroline Lea

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When The Sky Fell Apart by Caroline Lea

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A poignantly narrated fictionalisation of the WWII German occupation of Jersey. Emotions and people so real we just want to hug them and a climax that's hide-behind-the-sofa gripping.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 360 Date: February 2016
Publisher: Text Publishing Company
ISBN: 978-1925240740

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That was the order in which things happened: the sky fell apart, Jersey's beaches were bombed, Clement the island's butcher went up in flames where he stood and then the arrival of the German army. This will change the life of the island including herbalist Edith, neglected child Claudine, former fisherman Maurice and English Doctor Carter. Each of the four lives on the perimeter of the island's community but each will come to depend on the other three in order to continue living.

For this, her debut novel, Jersey-born-and-raised writer Caroline Lea fictionalises an episode of island life that echoes poignantly through living memory: the Nazi occupation.

Between 1940 and 1945 the islanders lived under the rule of 12,000 German soldiers, including Gestapo. Under a Commandant imposed on the island, they clamped down on any meeting of more than 4 people so that even the Salvation Army came under scrutiny. It became punishable to own a radio and, as food became scarce, what was left being reserved mainly for the occupiers. The result was widespread malnutrition and even starvation. Any locals who contravened these or any of the other numerous regulations were sent to the notorious work camps across Germany and, as we know from many of the darkest prisoner of war stories in history, not all returned.

These may be known facts to many of us who have an interest in the period but we shouldn't let that put us off. Caroline has written a novel drenched in local colour and atmosphere that will draw in the experts as much as those who are less aware. The ace she plays to accomplish this is her talent writing people that's as great as Caroline's talent for storytelling.

The tension builds through the action of the Germans as we'd expect, but also via the line between good and bad oscillating between the nationalities. Not all Germans are bad and not all islanders can be trusted. Therefore events bring our four outsiders together, turning up the temperature and the surprise value of the type of things they need to do to and overcome to survive.

Carter is continually haunted by his father's opinion of him and Carter's own suppression of his full identity, giving him something he tries desperately to overcome on top of the difficulties of day to day living. He's also English – neither a trusted local nor trusted by the invaders. Edith lives to help others while experiencing proof that ignorant superstition didn’t stop in the Dark Ages. Meanwhile Maurice has given up everything to care for his beloved wife, wracked by the later stages of Huntington's chorea. Whereas Claudine is just a young girl from a fractured home, helping to raise her little brother and thinking the best of everyone.

Caroline writes scenes that remain in the mind like sepia photographs. For instance Claudine spending time with her new friend on the beach or the tender moments Maurice is gifted in his wife's more lucid moments. Then there's Edith sharing that… Even thinking about each of them now brings a lump to my throat.

Caroline admits to a few minor tweaks to history in her fascinating end notes. For instance the island Commandant has been over-sadistised (if you know what I mean) but she gets away with it. As life turns from bad to worse to unbearable, it adds to our fear of turning the pages and yet the urge to know and live among these people is too great to stop us.

Right till the very end we have no idea of what’s going to happen. We only know it's powerful, compelling and not at all like a first novel. It also makes us wonder with gleeful anticipation what Caroline's next novel will be like.

(Thank you so much to the Text Publishing Company for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you'd like to read more of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, we just as heartily recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer.

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Buy When The Sky Fell Apart by Caroline Lea at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy When The Sky Fell Apart by Caroline Lea at Amazon.com.

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