Mary Chamberlain’s latest novel is The Hidden, which focuses on the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War. Duncan Barrett reviews her “taut and troubling” book.
In 2016, I spent three months in the Channel Islands, interviewing more than a hundred men and women who lived through the German Occupation during the Second World War. For the most part, time has healed old wounds, but the one subject that still raises hackles eight decades later is fraternisation between occupiers and occupied.
The ‘jerrybags’, local women who pursued relationships with German soldiers, are for many still objects of scorn. One man proudly told me how he would go out tarring and feathering them at the end of the war. (“It wasn’t hot tar, we didn’t hurt them!” he reassured me, when he saw the look of horror on my face.)
Mary Chamberlain’s new novel, The Hidden, which follows her international bestseller The Dressmaker of Dachau – and before that a long career as a professional historian – tackles the taboo of sleeping with the enemy head on.
Without wanting to give away too much of the complex, intertwined plot, it’s fair to say that illicit relationships of one kind or another are what tie the novel’s various strands together, as well as lending it an intense, and ultimately tragic, propulsive force. It is only in the book’s final pages that the reader understands the full implications of those relationships, and the legacies that they have left many decades later.
The novel is split between chapters set during the Occupation and ones following the same characters in 1985, when a mysterious stranger arrives intent on picking apart what happened during the war years, and opening up a few old wounds in the process.
Despite the dual time periods, Chamberlain succeeds in preserving a sense of mystery around the twisty plot, not least because her characters are rarely fully aware of their own roles in the story. For decades, all of them have been keeping secrets from their nearest and dearest, and in some cases even from themselves – dark, knotty truths that have been carefully hidden, like the escaped slave workers alluded to in the novel’s title.
While the 1980s chapters never feel perfunctory, it is in the wartime sections that the novel really comes to life. In evocative and precise prose, Chamberlain conjures the grim world of Jersey under German rule, drawing sensitively on the work of historians to pepper the narrative with telling real-world details. Some of the players in her story are actual historical figures, but their interactions with her fictional characters always carry an air of plausibility.
Readers familiar with the jolly sensibility of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society might find Chamberlain’s approach to the Channel Islands story jarring. This is very much not the ‘model occupation’ of polite German officers holding doors open for the locals and buying children ice creams on the beach.
Her interest is in the darkest recesses of the Occupation story, in the horrors that many living on the islands were not even aware were taking place. There are no good Germans here, but plenty of cruel, unscrupulous men with every intention of abusing their power as occupiers.
As a writer who tackled the Holocaust in her previous novel, it’s perhaps no surprise that Chamberlain engineers a plot that sees two of her characters tied up with the appalling true story of Alderney, an island all but abandoned by the local population before the Germans even arrived.
It was here, away from humane civilian eyes, that the worst abuses of the Occupation took place. Thousands of people are believed to have perished in the camps set up on the island – one of them run by the SS as an extension of Neuengamme concentration camp – and Chamberlain does not shy away from showing the full horror of the atrocities that took place there.
Meanwhile, back on Jersey, where the majority of the action in the book is set, the Occupation wears a more insidious mask, with the occasional flashes of brutality and oppression taking place behind closed doors. Here, moral questions of collaboration and resistance are painted in nuanced shades of grey.
For all Chamberlain’s characters, the war brings not only unspeakable suffering but uncomfortable moral compromises as well. One of the chapters set in 1985 includes a telling reference to the famous bank robbery in Stockholm 12 years earlier.
But what this taut and troubling novel seems to suggest overall is that perhaps 70,000 British people suffered their own form of Stockholm Syndrome during the war years – a nation of Patty Hearsts caught between the enemies who wore a friendly face and the allies who had long since abandoned them, and inevitably losing something of themselves in the process.
Duncan Barrett is the author of Hitler’s British Isles: The Real Story of the Occupied Channel Islands (Simon & Schuster, 2018).
People in St Helier, Jersey, with Red Cross food parcels, British Red Cross collection: via Flickr
Channel Islands identity card, British Red Cross collection: via Flickr
Gateposts to Lager Sylt SS Camp on Alderney (with plaque put up by ex-prisoners and their families) by James Vizard: via Flickr