I recently completed re-reading Suite Français by Irene Némirovsky. I first read it when I was studying for my MA and researching for my novel Casting Shadows; this time it was for my book group.
Recently, when I was mentoring a student, she was asked what themes were at the heart of my writing. It is this, what intrigues me is examining a character set against a difficult ethical dilemma and seeing how their moral compass is set. Does their sense of self alter? And when tested do they buckle or do they hold true to their beliefs?
I gave as an example the children hidden from the holocaust saved, by ordinary brave people, who put their own lives and those of their families and their community in peril to save a Jewish child by hiding them. I wondered whether collectively we as a nation we would hold fast, buckle, collude and offer up the vulnerable to the terrible fate the enemy had planned for them.
Némirovsky shows the worst and the best of human nature in her novel. I wonder how her novel would have been received if published (as it probably would have been had she not been murdered in a concentration camp) just after the war ended. It’s stark portrayal of the courageous and the collaborators and the mixed picture of the behaviour of French citizens under occupation, made me wonder if my moral compass would hold steady under those circumstances and at such a dark period in history. We are fortunate to have the vision of hindsight, we know the enemy was defeated and peace restored, but for anyone caught up in the conflict that occupying force could have been the new order under which they would live out the rest of their lives; which is a very different prospect.
Testing characters is what writers do. We put them in a position of peril and wait to see how they react. Although we construct these scenarios our characters often surprise us. They may pass of fail, mess up totally or finally redeem themselves.
These two books were also read for research and they are well worth reading if this is a subject that interests you.
The Hidden Children of the Holocaust by Jane Marks
Hiding to Survive by Maxine B Rosenberg