It’s 1940. A young woman working in the Aliens Office in Jersey reads the order to begin taking registrations of Jews. Does this order apply to me? she wonders. Her father was Jewish, but she has never practiced the faith and doesn’t have more than two Jewish grandparents, which the order says deems a person Jewish. For this young woman, Marlene, life in occupied Jersey raises a host of moral questions, of which this is only the first. In her novel, War on the Margins, Libby Cone explores these questions, using the lives of real-life Jersians, as well as some composite characters like Marlene.
Marlene’s dilemma soon lands her on the doorstep of the French surrealist lesbian artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. These two women, both real-life figures, are themselves Jewish, although they did not register. They draw Marlene into resistance work, creating fliers encouraging soldiers to desert and surreptitiously sneaking them into their pockets. As the novel goes on, readers meet Peter, a Polish prisoner whom the Germans bring to Jersey as slave labor, and Erica, a woman the authorities suspect of being Jewish but who has failed to register.
This novel was absorbing right from the start. It was developed out of Cone’s research for her MA in Jewish Studies, and she fills the novel with original documents from the time. And of course the situation itself is fascinating. I didn’t know anything much about the occupation of the Channel Islands until I listened to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society last year. In many ways, I found this book to be a more satisfying examination of the topic. It’s never overly light or twee (not that I’m opposed to lightness or tweeness); rather, its tone is sober, serious—a documentary approach, I suppose. This is what happened. This is what the people thought and did. Not a lot of witty repartee. I do think people could enjoy both books (I did), but they are quite different and likely to be enjoyed in different ways.
In the early chapters, I did find that I had some problems with the writing. Cone’s prose is generally workmanlike, which suits me fine, but every now and then it felt a little clunky. The dialogue is especially cringe-inducing at times. Eventually, though, the awkwardness wore off, or else I got used to Cone’s style. Either way, it wasn’t a problem as the book went on, and there are even a couple of rather nice pieces of writing in the later chapters. I wouldn’t say the prose is stellar, but it gets the job done.
The only other problem I had was that the multiple storylines didn’t mesh together very well. The chapters were clearly marked with a date and place, but the transitions from storyline one to the other still seemed abrupt at times. Most of the threads did come together (if a bit too neatly), but one of the threads could have been excised from the story entirely because it never did connect with the rest. (It was a good story, though, and I’d hate to see it go.)
The women’s resistance activities raised one of the most interesting threads. I was worried at one point that I was going to end up disliking the heroic women who were trying to subvert the Nazi regime. A few of their actions seemed morally questionable, being more about revenge and anger than about weakening the occupying force. I know that resistance against a regime as wicked as that of the Nazis might require actions that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable, but having read up on just-war theory in my Christian Ethics class this summer, I’m particularly sensitive to these issues and of the need to be less corrupt than our enemies. So, I was getting grumpy but decided to shrug it off, all the while assuming that there would be no serious consideration of these characters’ actions. I don’t have to approve of everything characters do to sympathize with them, so this didn’t have to ruin the novel.
But then, much to my surprise, events conspired to make the characters think about what they had done—to realize that their acts didn’t just affect the Nazis, that maybe there were consequences they couldn’t see. The internal questioning at this point might have gotten hammered a hair too strongly, but I was still thoroughly glad to see it addressed. It added a thought-provoking layer to the narrative that I much appreciated.
War on the Margins began its life as a self-published novel that was talked up by several bloggers and eventually published in the UK by Duckworth Books. Rob‘s review had piqued my interest in the book, so I was pleased when Libby Cone contacted me to see if I wanted to review it in anticipation of its U.S. release in paperback this August. (It’s already available for the Kindle.) Although I personally avoid self-published books (I have to read unedited work for my job, I’m not going to do it for fun), it is exciting to see a good book successfully find an audience through nontraditional means. War on the Margins certainly deserves that audience. I’m glad the book found me.