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Review of The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

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I went looking for this author after both my mother and a widely read student of mine recommended her work. The book is a dual narrative about an impressionist painting, The Girl You Left Behind.

In 1916 French artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his wife Sophie and goes to fight at the Front. When her town falls into German hands, Edouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant. As his obsession deepens, she will risk everything – her family, reputation and life – in the hope of seeing Edouard again. Nearly a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. Its beauty speaks of their short life together, but when the painting’s dark and passion-torn history is revealed, the first spark of new love Liv has felt is threatened…

girlMoyes’ depiction of the bleak conditions prevailing for French civilians in WWI occupied France is compelling – all the more so for being an under-reported slice of history. The Germans’ continual intrusion into everyday life with a range of rules and regulations; their ‘procurement’ of anything they fancy – from fine furniture, family heirlooms and any stored food and drink, in contrast to the starvation rations they eke out in return, is a grinding, frightening experience. Living under those conditions meant that anyone singled out by them immediately came under the spotlight – so when Sophia and her sister are commanded to cook the evening meal for the German officers and given rations to do so, their ravenous fellow villagers watch with envious eyes. Sophia’s raw courage and gritted determination to survive for the sake of her husband bounces off the page – and when the book suddenly switched to Liv’s story, a hundred years later, I was initially less than pleased.

However, Liv is suffering a different sort of hell. Probably as soul-rotting as Sophia’s plight, if not as extreme. Still struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband four years earlier, she lives in a house she cannot afford and endures the misery of concerned friends trying to ‘fix her up’ so she can move on. The painting that David bought her is a source of great comfort, so when it becomes the focus of unwelcome interest, Liv is determined to hang onto it, whatever the consequences.

In writing about the fortunes of two women confronted with such very different lives, Moyes is faced with the predicament of ensuring that the reader stays sympathetic to both of them. They share the same gutsy determination not to give in – and the same impetuous impulses that cause both of them to make decisions that are potentially disastrous. But Sophia is far tougher and more practical than Liv, brought up in harder times with an abusive father – and I liked the fact that Moyes doesn’t attempt to depict Liv as anything less than rather spoiled, in comparison. Of course she is – those of us living with the advantages of modern living all are. And unless we were confronted with the same terrible choices of imminent starvation and the daily misery of an invading army, we wouldn’t know how we would measure up.

But what starts as two love stories, linked by a painting spirals off into a far more interesting, nuanced narrative. Liv is informed that her beloved painting was appropriated by a German officer during WWI, and as such, truly belongs to the family of the artist, living in France. Who is more entitled to it? The current owner, who bought it in good faith – or the relatives of a family who had everything unfairly ripped away by an invading army, even when that deed occurred a century ago? While we all think we know the answer, Moyes poses the question where the original family’s motives are purely financial, compared to Liv’s gritted emotional reaction to being forced to relinquish the one possession that has come to symbolise her lost marriage. It’s a very neat device – and completely drew me in.

This is an intelligent, able author at the height of her powers, who has written a compelling story full of twists and turns. It could so easily have all gone pear-shaped… Sophie’s terrible experiences could have completely overwhelmed the second narrative, making Liv’s plight seem anaemic in comparison, thus unbalancing the whole book. That it doesn’t shows a depth of skill in the crafting that is belied by the readable, unflashy style which, nevertheless, had me reading waaay after I should have got up and got cracking this morning.

Any niggles? The supporting cast are mostly very strong. I enjoyed the contrasting worlds – Hélène, Sophie’s sister, gives a believable slice of sisterly support and criticism that is pitch perfect. I also found Liv’s eccentric actor father and step-mother enjoyably plausible. But one character did have me gritting my teeth by the end – Mo, the goth waitress that ends up moving in with Liv is far too knowing and wise. Consequently, in a book filled with well-drawn, realistic characters, she stands out like a sore thumb… However, in the overall scheme of things, this is a minor quibble – and I am certainly going to hunt down more books by this talented writer.
9/10

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