Book Review: Operation Moonlight

operation moonlight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Reading the synopsis of Operation Moonlight I was reminded of the Sebastian Faulks novel, Charlotte Gray. This latter work would not be amongst my favourite of the author’s somewhat patchy oeuvre but the events on which it is based – a young woman parachuted into France during the Second World War to complete a mission for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) – remained of interest. I hoped that a female author could do a better job of portraying such a protagonist.

As with so many contemporary novels, the story is told across two timelines. It opens in early 2018 at the home of soon to be centenarian, Betty Shepherd. Betty still lives in a house in Guildford that she once shared with her mother and then her husband. She has a live-in carer, Tali, who left Mauritius to escape a family situation. Betty has recently received word that her son, Leo, is returning to England from Australia. His mother suspects his intentions will not be in her best interests.

The second timeline starts in early 1944. Elisabeth Ridley is travelling to London for an intriguing meeting. Here she is offered training with the SEO and the chance to help the war effort. It is made clear how dangerous this could be, that an agent’s chances of survival may be as low as fifty per cent. Nevertheless, Elisabeth accepts.

What we then get are two separate stories, both nicely told. Betty is clearly Elisabeth so we know she survives. Her somewhat rushed SEO training, the people she meets there, and then her dangerous mission, evoke well the horror and deprivation of life at the time – especially in occupied France. It becomes understandable why so many were willing to risk their lives for differing shades of freedom.

The story in the later timeline focuses on the realty of living into old age. The challenges are almost too much at times, even when well cared for.

“Her knees and shoulders ache. Everything aches. Old age is like a prison.”

Personally I found this more compelling than the wartime story, perhaps because so many novels are set around the war years. Tali is also well developed – the loneliness of life away from all she had previously known, especially in the cold of an English winter.

There is a love story within each of the tales. Elisabeth’s made her appear foolish and naive, this in comparison to the determination she musters to survive under extreme duress. Considering the bravery she showed elsewhere, by ignoring key elements of her training – the advice clearly given – she risked her entire mission and the lives of those who helped her.

For readers who like this sort of thing, there are descriptions of sex acts that I chose to skim read. From the safety of my sofa I was growing irritated as it was clear what would happen next. There is a later element to this episode that offered welcome additional context and depth.

The love story in Betty’s timeline is more nuanced. Again there are sexual descriptions I could have done without – that some readers will likely enjoy – but the characters remained focused, in line with their development.

The cover of the book has a pull quote describing the novel as ‘charming’ which, along with the cover art, would normally put me off such a book. I was therefore pleased to find enough sagacity within these pages to surmount the ‘heart-warming’ elements. I learned more about SEO operations, and the sexism inherent in the system. The depiction of the elderly was excellent.

Certain threads and characters were introduced then not taken forward. They enabled a ratcheting of tension and reminded the reader – as was demonstrated during more recent events – how neighbours can turn on each other when behaviour is deemed renegade. I was not entirely convinced that this purpose warranted their inclusion but then I do admire brevity in written works.

Another minor quibble would be Leo’s fate. I can see why the author did this but would have favoured something more complex to chew over afterwards.

I preferred Operation Moonlight to the Faulks novel. It is an easy read – which takes skill to write – but is never simplistic. It shed new light on a time and place – occupied Rouen. There is humour in the contemporary timeline but the elderly characters and their carers are drawn with respect and sensitivity.

Any Cop?: A fine tale of wartime heroism, alongside the courage and resilience needed to face being aged. Add to this the diverse and well drawn secondary characters and we have an enjoyable story offering thoughtful escapism.

Jackie Law

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Book Review: Time for Lights Out

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Raymond Briggs is now in his eighties and apparently contemplating life’s end. He has stated that he expects Time for Lights Out to be his last book – it took him over a decade to create. Given the subject matter it may sound depressing but this is not the case. Although searingly honest about an aging body’s failings and inevitable future, the tone is more reflective than bleak.

Throughout the varied entries the author demonstrates an awareness of his increasing frailty. He writes of eating healthy food and taking regular exercise. He still indulges in the wine he enjoys, trying to temper concerns without becoming obsessive. He lives in rural Sussex where the countryside is teeming with life but also deaths, such as road kill. Briggs visits a local cemetery and notes the prevalence of young people buried in his parents’ time. He reads newspaper obituary pages and feels a sense of achievement when he is older than the recently deceased.

The contents of the book are a mixture of: pencil drawn illustrations, comic strips, poems, photographs, quotes, lists, and short opinion pieces. All are based around the author’s personal memories and experiences. Divided into three sections – Now, Then, Soon – they offer a picture of the life Briggs has lived and his concerns about its end. His wry musings cover day to day activities including: walking his dog, habits when at home, interactions with friends and neighbours. Certain memories are triggered by items kept for decades, often unused but hard to throw away due to their history.

“Old people are always absorbed in something. Usually themselves.”

The ‘Now’ section presents Briggs as a seventy-something year old who surveys himself as an old man and is somewhat annoyed that this is what he has turned into. On walks he finds the hills are harder to climb. His days are marked out by routines he and his partner doggedly adhere to. He observes that he has become less tolerant of other people’s appearance and behaviour. All of this is written with unflinching insight and wry humour. Briggs recognises his foibles and failings. Although poignant in places there is no expectation of sympathy.

‘Then’ looks back at: Briggs’ parents, his own childhood, the death of his wife, visiting grandchildren. Much has changed in the world during each of their lifetimes. The lasting effects of the two world wars are remembered along with more welcome advances – illustrated by conversations Briggs has with the young children. He remembers those who have died but acknowledges also that they are sometimes forgotten – that life goes on for those who remain.

“Death hovers around us every day.
Somehow, we close our minds to its closeness,
even when it is just outside the window
or is staring at us from the television.”

‘Soon’ is wound around a fear the author has about ending up in a care home for the elderly. He ruminates over personal possessions that are dear to him and how these would have to be disposed of. He recalls the deaths of acquaintances and that this must one day happen to him. Yet all of this is contemplated without rancour. I found Briggs’ willingness to confront what is inevitable refreshing. Contemporary society is so often eager to avoid acknowledging the prospect of death.

“He who is not anxious has no imagination”

Briggs’ inimitable illustrations are a mix of finely rendered drawings and more blurred images – appropriate when conveying the speed at which time passes (and perhaps the deterioration of eyesight) when on life’s downhill trajectory. The importance of memory in old age, especially of childhood, is given thoughtful consideration. The structure of the book allows the reader to peruse pages without the necessity of reading in order from cover to cover.

Any Cop?: A frank and originally presented memoir depicting what living day to day feels like having exceeded one’s allotted three score and ten years. If this is Briggs’ swansong it is a fitting tribute to his artistic talent and percipient story telling.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Carer

The Carer, by Deborah Moggach, is a bittersweet story of two sexagenarian siblings. It presents their personal travails as they navigate the murky waters of remaining independent whilst dealing with a frail elderly parent. Their eighty-five year old father, James, is a retired Professor of Particle Physics. He was married for sixty-four years to the equally intelligent but now dead Anna. Since breaking his hip, James cannot manage the stairs in his cottage so sleeps alone on a single bed at street level. His children, Robert and Phoebe, wish to continue with their own lives unencumbered by their father’s practical needs. They therefore hire a live-in carer to enable him to stay in his own home several hours drive from where they live.

Finding a carer willing to move to a sleepy Cotswold village and give James the attention he requires proves a challenge. After a couple of false starts they find Mandy, an overweight and garrulous fifty-two year old who arrives with impeccable references. The recently morose James is transformed under her care. Gone are the stimulating conversations and intellectual musings. In their place is an interest in village gossip, scratch cards, daytime TV and visits to shopping centres.

Robert and Phoebe retreat feeling both relieved and guilty. Robert is writing a novel in his garden shed in London, avoiding his beautiful and successful wife who goads him about his failures. Phoebe, an artist living in a small Welsh town where every second person harbours artistic tendencies, is indulging in an affair with a local woodsman. Both siblings feel frustrated at the direction their lives have taken, blaming parents they remember from childhood as neglectful.

Mandy berates Robert and Phoebe for still harbouring grudges against their parents. She has little time for such self-pity when they are farming out their father’s care. As her employers, the siblings do not appreciate being spoken to so plainly. Privately they worry that what Mandy is saying may be true.

Story chapters are told from key characters’ points of view. The reader learns the bare bones of the siblings’ backstories, their thwarted desires and concerns. As Robert and Phoebe go through their days, James and Mandy appear to be getting on well. There is, however, a growing suspicion that the affable carer is not trustworthy. Phoebe and Robert prevaricate over whether they are being paranoid or if they should be concerned. And yet, do the family want to lose a carer doing a job they are unwilling to take on themselves?

There is a gentle humour in the writing as key events unfold and threads are spun together. The author captures the pathos of aging, both the elderly James and his no longer young children. It is a nicely structured depiction of some of the challenges and risks inherent when bringing a stranger into intimate contact with a loved one. There are gently mocking observations to lighten any darkness in the tale.

The final third of the book adds an unexpected dimension. It offers an interesting exploration of familial secrets and their impact on relationships.

I found the pace somewhat slow in places but then this is not to be the sort of book I normally read. The topic is timely given our aging population. A complex issue wrapped within a wider, droll tale – easy but not empty entertainment.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press

Book Review: Our Souls at Night

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Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf, is an exquisitely written story of aging, loneliness, empathy and the cruelties inflicted by those who should have our best interests at heart. It is a beautiful book despite the sadness it evokes. The sparse prose was a joy to read.

Addie Moore is a seventy year old widow who misses having someone to talk to when she is alone at night. One evening she pays a visit to her neighbour, Louis, a widower of a similar age. She proposes that he come over to spend the nights with her. She is not looking for sex, although this is not ruled out, but rather warmth and companionship. Thus begins a relationship that disquiets many in their small town community and shocks their children.

As Addie and Louis get to know each other better they settle into a routine that suits them well. They find contentment in each other’s company and the strength to rebuff those who criticise what they are doing. Quite a few of their friends are in fact a little envious that they have found happiness at their age. It is their children, their loved ones, who threaten all that they have gained.

Just as parent’s of young children can fail to regard their offspring’s feelings, convinced that only they know what is best for them, so Addie and Louis’s grown children cannot seem to regard their parents as people with regular desires. They see them merely as old and denounce the relationship. It is embarrassing, inappropriate and a threat to their inheritance.

The protagonists in this book are ordinary, everyday folk trying to get by as best they can. What comes to the fore as the tale progresses is how society condemns the elderly to a certain lifestyle and fails to see them as people who want to live rather than merely survive. Both Addie and Louis are of sound mind yet are treated as incapable of wise self-determination.

It is easy to see why each of the characters thinks as they do. They are rounded and believable with a depth that the author provides with a minimum of words. I loved this tale and feel sated by the telling. I recommend it to all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.