Tom Williams reviews The Lifeline by Deborah Swift, an adventure story with a dash of romance set in German-occupied Norway during a lesser-known episode of resistance to Nazi rule.
Deborah Swift’s latest continues the Second World War theme of her latest books. We’re in German-occupied Norway in 1942.
We are thrown into the action practically from the first page when Astrid discovers her boyfriend sending radio messages to England.
Jorgen Nystrom is a radio operator for Milorg, the Norwegian Resistance. He has survived longer than most but now the Germans have tumbled him and they are waiting to arrest him on his return home, so chapter two starts with his desperate escape with Germans firing at him as he flees.
We never find out how his cover was blown. It doesn’t matter. No time is being wasted in scene-setting. We are on the run with Jorgen, whose only chance of escape is to get the Shetland Bus, one of the fishing boats that run the unbelievably dangerous passage from the Shetland islands to Norway, carrying arms and agents in one direction and refugees in the other.
This is a traditional war story, replete with the tropes of heroic escapes from villainous Nazis. Jorgen doesn’t have an easy time of it and if his desperate flight on cross-country skis touches on the edge of James Bondish implausibility, Swift does show him as vulnerable and even – worn down by hunger, cold and exhaustion – sometimes frail.
We have two main villains: an evil Nazi-sympathising policeman, Falk, and his agent, Brevik, a star skier who is sent to catch up with Jorgen, befriend him and penetrate the Shetland Bus network. Falk is a traditional Nazi villain: “too short, too tubby and without the good looks that made men like Nystrom’s life so easy”.
Brevik, though, is a much more interesting character. Lacking any political commitment or moral compass, he manages to fool everybody that he is a Resistance hero. I’d have liked the story to have made more of him. He is an excellent villain and I can’t help feeling that a lot of his potential is wasted.
Meanwhile, back in Oslo, Astrid is resisting the Nazis in a less dramatic but, for my money, much more heroic way. She is a teacher and when the occupying Germans insist on the Nazification of the educational system, she is one of the organisers of a school strike.
We see a lot of the casual Nazi violence, with hostages rounded up and shot in the street, teachers sent to labour camps in the far north of the country and the persecution of Jews.
Astrid’s position is as dangerous as Jorgen’s and she doesn’t have the comradeship of Milorg to fall back on. In fact, her one contact in the Resistance makes it quite clear that when push comes to shove, she is on her own.
Eventually, with the Nazis trying to arrest her, and a Jewish father and daughter she has taken in to save them from deportation, Astrid, too feels she has no choice but to make a run for the Shetland Bus.
Will Jorgen make it to Shetland? Will Astrid escape too and meet him there? Will their love triumph against the horror of the times they live in? Discussing any of this risks spoilers. You are unlikely to be shocked by any of the twists, but they do keep things lively.
This is a solid story and, as I would expect from Deborah Swift, well-written. If you like war stories, you’ll enjoy it. If you want to know more about the occupation in a country the British were going to invade until the Germans got there first (a detail Swift, like most British people, avoids mentioning), this is definitely worth a look. And if you are just looking for an adventure story with a dash of romance, you could do a lot worse.
It doesn’t come with any startling insights into the reality of World War II but it does throw more light on one of its darker corners and is worth the read.
She’s written about the Norwegian teachers’ strike, which Tom referred to above as heroic, in her Historia feature, A different kind of WWII resistance.
Tom Williams writes tales of derring-do in the age of Napoleon and stories that reflect the dark side of Empire. His latest book is Burke in the Peninsula, which takes his reluctant spy, James Burke, into the heart of the Napoleonic War in Spain – read about Tom’s adventures on a research trip to Spain to find Talavera, the site of a major battle during that conflict.
He travels to some extremely interesting places to research his books and can dance a mean Argentine tango.
This review is a shorter version of one that appears on Tom’s blog.