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A message of hope

Conrad Landin finds much to admire in Katharine McMahon’s tale of friendship in a time of conflict

27 March, 2020 — By Conrad Landin

Katharine McMahon, author of The Hour of Separation

THE men in the trenches weren’t patriotic, didn’t hate the Kaiser, didn’t care a damn about gallant little Belgium and the Germans raping nuns on tables (it was always ‘on tables’, as though that made it worse) in the streets of Brussels,” says George Bowling, the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air.

In Katharine McMahon’s latest novel, however, it is an act of heroism in “gallant little Belgium” that drives the narrative. Fleur Cornelis-Faider died shortly after saving the life of British soldier Edward Geering during the First World War.

In 1939, as Europe hurtles towards conflict once again, Geering’s daughter Christabel makes contact with the family of her father’s saviour. It is Cornelis-Faider’s daughter, Estelle, who pens the reply.

Thus begins a friendship steeped in fervour and overshadowed by the past, as the two protagonists flit between England and Belgium, and come to terms with themselves and the world around them.

Like Bowling’s West Bletchley, the Geerings’ home in Hertfordshire is bland and suffocating. But while the brink-of-war society depicted by Orwell is far distant from the ensuing geopolitical mayhem, McMahon’s protagonists are in direct contact with a world of myth-making, secrets and lies.

The Hour of Separation is predicated on an atmosphere of tension, but never quite pulls it off. As the author attempts to set up a mystery narrative over who betrayed Fleur to occupying Germans, she ascribes an air of mystery to too many tangential and underdeveloped characters.

Though impeccably researched, the dialogue is often stilted and unconvincing, and there is an annoying tic – common, sadly, to many British novels set abroad – of leaving only personal titles untranslated.

That said, McMahon still effectively conveys the discomfort and distrust felt by her protagonists when visiting each others’ homelands. As the central relationship comes under strain, she skilfully weaves between contrasting accounts of the same events from Estelle and Christa.

The novel picks up pace at the outbreak of the Second World War, with both characters effective in their anti-Nazi activities while still apparently preoccupied with – or indeed motivated by – one another.

It is a vision of resistance that could not contrast more with that of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film Army of Shadows, in which all personal affectations must be suppressed in favour of loyalty to the struggle and the chief.

It is hard to imagine Estelle, her brother Robbe or Christa surviving in the French Resistance cell of Phillipe Gerbier and Mathilde.

But this is not France, but Belgium, with its unique part to play in both wars and a fraught national identity. It is also a story of personalities. And though it is the political pushing Europe to a dark place indeed, it is the personal, in McMahon’s narrative, that offers the hope of overcoming despair.

The Hour of Separation. By Katharine McMahon, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £8.99

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