Book: Charlotte Gray: A Novel

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Charlotte Gray: A Novel

Author: Sebastian Faulks
Publisher: Random House

In blacked-out, wartime London, Charlotte Gray develops a dangerous passion for a battle-weary RAF pilot, and when he fails to return from a daring flight into France she is determined to find him. In the service of the Resistance, she travels to the village of Lavaurette, dyeing her hair and changing her name to conceal her identity. Here she will come face-to-face with the harrowing truth of what took place during Europe’s darkest years, and will confront a terrifying secret that threatens to cast its shadow over the remainder of her days.

Vividly rendered, tremendously moving, and with a narrative sweep and power reminiscent of his novel Birdsong, Charlotte Gray confirms Sebastian Faulks as one of the finest novelists working today.


In his 1996 novel, Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks showed himself to be a superb anatomist of men—and, just as importantly, women—at war. Indeed, his depiction of trench combat during World War I was almost painfully vivid: the equivalent of Wilfred Owen in prose, minus the lingering idealism. Now the author shifts his focus to the next global conflict in Charlotte Gray. This time the year is 1942, when “England was blacked out and afraid.” The 25-year-old heroine has just traveled down from Edinburgh to London, hoping to make some contribution to the war effort. In short order she falls in love with a British pilot, mourns his disappearance and apparent death in France, and follows him across the Channel to assist the nascent French Resistance.

On the face of it, these are the ingredients of a historical potboiler. But Faulks is such a gifted storyteller that we seldom notice the threadbare nature of the raw material. Instead, all but the most churlish reader will be drawn into Charlotte’s tribulations, which are not merely geopolitical but amorous: “The last thing she needed was some uncontrolled romance. She wanted to be helpful, she wanted to lead a serious life, not to lie sobbing in her bed for a disembodied yearning. Still less did she wish to see it embodied, with the complication and the fear that all that would entail.” (Note: Charlotte is that rare thing, a virginal heroine, at least until page 61.) What’s more, the author’s evocation of Occupied France is a triumph of grimy, monochromatic realism. Here the small triumphs of Charlotte and her circle are expertly offset by the larger tragedies of what we’ve come to call, with only middling accuracy, the Good War. —William Davies

Sebastian Faulks established his authority as a storyteller with his best-selling Birdsong. His next book, Charlotte Gray, a haunting story of love and war set in London and occupied France in 1942-3, is loosely a sequel. Charlotte is a highly educated young Scottish woman who falls passionately in love with an airman, Peter Gregory, emotionally scarred by his many close brushes with death. When he disappears on a mission to France, she follows him as a British secret courier, sent over to help support the Resistance. Having failed to find Gregory, she decides to stay on to do what she can for the France she has loved since childhood. She and the reader are drawn ever deeper into the lives of assimilated French Jews—the children Andre and Jacob whose parents have already been sent to the death camps, and the Levades, father and son. Though ultimately powerless to help, Charlotte nevertheless learns a far deeper understanding of herself and her own family through them.

This is a book full of insight into the way civilization can slip into barbarism. Its haunting themes of memory and passion stay with you long after you have finished reading. —Lisa Jardine

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“Although this is a work of fiction, I have tried to represent the historical background as it actually was,” Sebastian Faulks writes in a note to this fine novel. Faulks—best known in the United States for Birdsong, his acclaimed World War I novel—turns in Charlotte Gray to the dark heart of the 20th Century: World War II—and in particular the black year of 1942, while Germany still loomed as the likely victor.

Charlotte Gray sounds like the title of a 19th-century novel, and its heroine is a young woman who—like George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke or Henry James’s Isabel Archer—draws everyone to her by virtue of her radiant if fragile promise. She is passionate, mercurial, intelligent—and aloof, as yet, to life. She puts people in mind of life’s potential, a quality that in wartime is everywhere stunted and maimed.

In the winter of 1942, Charlotte leaves her home in Edinburgh (she is Scottish, as she likes to insist, not English) for London, wanting to do something—she’s not sure quite what—for the war effort. On the train she meets Dick Cannerly, who will later put her in touch with something called G Section, a shadowy British organization devoted to fomenting and assisting the Resistance in Vichy, France. In London, Charlotte attends a pretentious literary party and finds herself dancing with RAF pilot Peter Gregory—and before long she falls in love with this kind, damaged veteran of the Battle of Britain. Their love is barely conceived, though, when Gregory goes down in a new mission over France. Shortly thereafter, an interview with G Section provides Charlotte the opportunity to go to France as a courier. This is her official mission, at any rate; her secret, quixotic one is, of course, to find Gregory.

Charlotte Gray is a suspenseful high-wire act and a brilliantly affecting love story set against a sweeping backdrop of world history. Some may read it without tears, but few will read it without gratitude. Compelling, detailed, and boundlessly humane, it is, as a historical novel, a virtuoso performance.

Related Works

Album:Charlotte Gray: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Charlotte Gray: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Stephen Warbeck

What would inspire a young Scottish woman to parachute into Europe and join the underground French Resistance during World War II’s darkest hours? If we’re to believe this tale, ‘twas simply love for her captured boyfriend. While it boasts another stellar turn by star Cate Blanchett and the promising involvement of Oscar®-winning Shakespeare in Love composer Stephen Warbeck, the latter’s orchestral score ultimately points up a sometimes troubling aspect of film projects: the brooding, subtly dramatic cues that work so well in a film can be a mighty dry…

Film:Charlotte Gray

Charlotte Gray

Gillian Armstrong

Charlotte Gray does little to tarnish Cate Blanchett’s rising-star status but misfires badly as a moralistic World War II drama. The title character of the film, which is based on a popular novel of the same name by Sebastian Faulks, is a young Scottish woman (Blanchett) who has come to London to help with the war effort. After quickly falling in love with a dashing pilot who is summarily shot down in southwest France, the intensely patriotic Charlotte joins a special operations outfit in order to find him. Competent melodrama to this point, the film goes…

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