Monday, 12 August 2013

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind, by Jojo Moyles

My Grandma lent me this book, and I have to say I hesitated before reading it. I made the assumption that it would be a bit fluffy, a bit vague, using the backdrop of WWI for an average love story. Well, I'm glad to announce that I was very wrong.
The Girl You Left Behind, 4/5
Set in 1916, the book opens in the middle of crisis; the Germans have arrived at Le Coq Rouge hotel (unlike le Coq Bleu, currently making Trafalgar Square very ugly) under the impression that the owners, sisters Sophie and Helene, are hiding a pig. The feeling of fear and suspense is immediately created, and the reader develops a fondness for Sophie because of her bravery.
The new Kommandant in town develops an obsession of a portrait of Sophie ("The Girl You Left Behind") painted by her husband, Edouard Lefevre, who is away fighting. Le Coq Rouge becomes the new eating quarters of the German soldiers, and Sophie and the Kommandant develop an uneasy truce. They discuss Lefevre's art and Matisse, and while the reader never warms to him, the Kommandant is exposed as more than the leader of the enemy.
The fateful moment of the text is when Sophie offers the portrait of herself as an exchange for the release of her husband from a German prison camp. Already heavily criticised and isolated by the villagers for 'allowing' German soldiers to dine at the hotel, Sophie is violently rejected as a result of this deal.  
While the villagers' sense of betrayal towards her may seem misplaced, the reader is constantly reminded of how little these people have left, and left to hope for. Moyles successfully creates the oppressive and suspenseful atmosphere of living in an occupied town, and the desperation of trying to hide what little the villagers have left after the Germans have taken the best items from each household. Therefore, their hatred of the Germans and anyone they view as conspiring with them is understandable, even if the reader empathises with Sophie's actions.
90 years later, in 2006, the reader is introduced to Liv; widowed, alone, and in deep financial trouble, I hesitate to suggest that Liv is a mirror of Sophie. There are profound differences between the two women; Sophie's hope versus Liv's despair, for example, but both women suffer terrible losses, and degrading humiliation for the majority of their narratives.
Liv is given "The Girl You Left Behind" as a honeymoon present by her deceased husband, whom she is very much still mourning for. Then, it is revealed that the painting was stolen during wartime, and a court case ensues to give it back to it's "rightful" owners...
The novel provides a new perspective on the effects of WWI, detailing the difficulties and emotional turmoil of recovering lost and stolen artwork. Liv's attachment to Sophie's portrait is saddened by both their histories, and the story successfully encapsulates the fractious relationship between truth, lies and betrayal.

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