Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 24, 2016

When the Sky Fell Apart (2016), by Caroline Lea

When the Sky Fell ApartHistorical novels are tricky beasts, and probably harder to write when events are still within living memory.  Because it isn’t just a matter of researching the era and getting the details right, it’s a matter of recapturing the mindset of the characters in a way that’s convincing.  There’s a still-living generation whose youth and early adulthood was, for example, under German Occupation, and their children and grandchildren know their stories and have some comprehension of their feelings.

The complex mindset of a place under Occupation is perhaps one of the most difficult to render effectively.  There is the shock of defeat or surrender along with guilt; there are feelings of abandonment by allies or the international community; there is resentment at changes imposed by the new administration whether brutal or otherwise; there is hope too, however unrealistic, that the occupiers will leave.  And there is also the legitimate fear of vulnerability at the hands of the unknown; anger about the humiliation of defeat; and grief about the loss of national identity alongside personal grief over the fallen.  Tragically destructive, suspicion and wariness also spread through the community like a savage cancer.

At the personal level there is having to cope with the enemy in the flesh – not some far away disembodied propaganda creature that can be hated in the abstract – but present, oppressively so, and in all the complex forms of humanity.  As we see in the exceptionally good TV series Un Village Français those living under an Occupation respond in all sorts of ways, from sustained hatred and active (sometimes inept) resistance, to mild (usually pragmatic) forms of collaboration and outright betrayal (sometimes for spiteful reasons, sometimes because of values shared with the Occupier).  As we see in Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française, written during the German Occupation of France, coexistence can mean a handsome, kindly Occupier slowly finding a place in a woman’s reluctant heart.  The best of historical novels on this theme include

  • Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin which shows the growth of love for a reluctant Occupier trying not to be complicit in barbarism.
  • Tim Binding’s Island Madness, set on the island of Guernsey, shows mothers torn between hatred of the Occupier and what they must personally surrender to feed their hungry children.
  • Elizabeth Storrs captures the struggle between acceptance and defiance in The Wedding Shroud when the Etruscans are conquered by Rome.
  • Andrea Molesini in Between Enemies explores the sense of desperate humiliation in an Italian village under the Germans.

(A Soldier’s Tale, by M.K. Joseph deals with the aftermath of collaboration for people so ordinary it can make you weep).

(What Isis Occupation is like in Syria and Iraq seems qualitatively different.  We are yet to hear these stories).

In a novel of an Occupation, the interest is always going to be on the moral choices that characters are forced into making.  An Occupation novel tests the reader because it imposes the question: what would I have done?  Nothing is ever simple when dealing with the ethics of personal conduct, but the pressure of war intensifies the dilemmas.  And in a small community where everyone knows everyone and everything, judgement can be swift and ruthless.

Caroline Lea, a debut novelist raised on the largest of the Channel islands,  Jersey, has based her story on the period of German Occupation (1940-1945), when 12,000 Germans landed on the island and set about fortifying it.  Jersey lies in the English Channel, within rowing distance of Normandy (about 22km) and a good deal further from England (about 160km away).  The islanders who chose to stay rather than to evacuate are quick to blame Britain for abandoning them but it soon becomes apparent that despite the Blitz, it’s Britain that offers hope of sanctuary.

The characterisation includes a range of outsiders: an angst-ridden English doctor; a herbalist accused of witchcraft; a child too clever by half; a loving husband coping with his wife’s advanced Huntingdon’s Disease; a mother who seems to be suffering (post-natal?) depression; and a ‘good’ German soldier, vulnerable to Hitler’s policies against the disabled because he has a withered arm.  The Commanding Officer is a stereotypical German brute, breath-takingly cruel and cunningly manipulative.  He uses his position to compromise the doctor and the Black Marketeers.   There seems to be no shortage of people willing to betray each other in order to gain favours, mainly food, because there isn’t enough to go round and of course the locals get a good deal less of it than the Germans.

Most of the book is written in chronological scenes with an occasional flashback to reveal the doctor’s backstory, and it is mostly told from his point-of-view, and that of the herbalist, the loving husband and the child – who  takes on the narrative role of a naïve observer wise beyond her years in some ways.  There is a bit too much of this child, tempting my suspicions that she is a semi-autobiographical creation of the type that often crops up in first novels.

Not all of this characterisation and plot is entirely convincing, and not all characters can be seen struggling with moral choices, but there is a taut climax that is not quite as predictable as might have been expected.  But it’s quite successful as light reading, and the settings bring the sense of isolation and entrapment to life:

Carter turned away and stared out of the window.  Dusk would soon fall and the sky was a perfect plum blue.  On the horizon, the flat eye of the sea, unblinking.  Strange that the sight of the endless, open water should make him feel like a caged animal.  (p. 245)

Reading this made me wonder why I have come across so few Occupation novels from places closer to home. Of course there is Nevil Shute’s well-loved A Town Like Alice set in the jungles of Malaya under Japanese Occupation, but Shute was British.  It was not his homeland that was under occupation.  Malaya was a place where Britain itself had been the colonial occupier for generations.  More pertinent is the novel of Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound which treats the Japanese Occupation in the course of its sweep across Indonesian history, and so does Ismail Marahimin’s And the War is Over.  But I know nothing from Singapore, the Philippines, or New Guinea.  Perhaps Southeast Asian authors are preoccupied with postcolonial issues and the Japanese Occupation forms only part of centuries of occupation by colonial powers? Or have I just not read enough of Southeast Asian literature?  I wonder if there are specialists in southeast Asian literature who could answer this for me…

PS The 2016 Alliance Française Film Festival is screening episodes of Un Village Française as a taster, and you can buy Series 1 & 2, with the rest of the series still waiting on translation.

PPS BTW You may be interested in reading about the heroism of Major Marie Ozanne of the Salvation Army who refused to submit to the Nazis on the island of Guernsey.

Author: Caroline Lea
Title: When the Sky Fell Apart
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925240719
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.

Available from When the Sky Fell Apart


  1. This post demands a reference to Mary Anne Schaffer’s hugely popular novel ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’, which deals with the German occupation of the neighbouring island of Guernsey in the same period. A hugely entertaining and quite moving book.


    • Hi Teresa, I’d forgotten about that one. But I have to say, it’s not in the same league as the others I’ve recommended:


      • Oh god, I hated that book, and admittedly it is my horrid memories of that one which put me off Lea’s novel, which was sent to me unsolicited. Perhaps it’s unfair to make such judgements but it was a gut instinct… This is a fabulous post, by the way, Occupation novels are fascinating but I haven’t read most of the ones you’ve listed: no doubt many will be going on my wish list!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you! I think because Tim Binding’s one was the first Occupation novel I’d ever read, and it was so good, it made a very powerful impression on me, which then influenced my reading of the others that I came across.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. The first novel of ‘occupation’ that I read was Sartre’s Iron in the Soul, basically of his own experience of the defeat and occupation of France by the Germans in WW II. I still think Sartre is one of the greats but I haven’t read him for ages.
    The other is Kim Scott’s That Dead Man Dance (my review at which is of course of the occupation of the South West (of WA) by the British. And you could probably read Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land in the same way.


  3. *smacks forehead* Of course, of course, That Deadman Dance is an Occupation novel, and you are right, so is The Timeless Land and probably heaps more besides.
    See, it just shows you how the lens we look through filters everything. A book about German Occupation triggered my thoughts about Japanese Occupation – with a passing nod to colonial occupation – but I did not take that step closer to home and recognise the elephant in the room….


  4. I’ve read quite a few occupation novels so I’m hesitant about reading more as the ground is so well trodden. My favourite European ones are probably Guernsey Potato Pie, The Book Thief and, the lesser known, Ignorance by Michèle Roberts. I’ve not read many South East Asian ones though…there’s Empire of the Sun, but Ballard is English. Great question! I hope a few more people come along and give some good suggestions of others to read.


    • Ah yes, I ‘d forgotten about The Book Thief, and I don’t know Ignorance at all. I suppose there must be many others, from European countries under Occupation that tend not to be translated as much…
      Empire of the Sun was a terrific book:)


  5. […] on the heels of my reading of an Occupation novel and a collection of refugee stories, comes this compelling history of the Australian nurses whose […]


  6. My father was a child in Guernsey for the whole of the occupation by the Germans and has lots of interesting stories to tell. His brother and sister were evacuated but he and his mother were leaving for England on the morning the German’s landed so were stranded. I must have read your review when you published it and have had it on my audiobook wishlist – I have just bought it and I’m now looking forward to listening to it.


    • Goodness, that must have been a harrowing time for him and his mother. Do try to get hold of Island Madness by Tim Binding too, it is really really good IMO.


      • I bought that tonight as well. You are a very bad influence, Lisa 😉


        • *chuckle*
          It would be interesting to know what your father thinks of these books, but he may not want to read them. My father never wanted anything that reminded him of being an evacuee in England…


          • Unfortunately Dad has Alzheimers now and is unable to read. He did read Potato Peel Pie Society a few years ago and did enjoy that. His sister wrote about her many years in England as an evacuee but her book is no longer in print.


            • Oh, that is hard. It is such an awful disease.


              • Agreed


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