Book Review: Final Transgression by Harriet Welty Rochefort
Final Transgression is an impeccably researched story that leads up to a gruesome dénouement in Nazi occupied France, both in Paris and in a small village, in the south west.
I have read other stories about WWII in France and watched films such as the wonderful Les Femmes de l’Ombre, but those stories were about extraordinary people, making great sacrifices to achieve extraordinary things. This novel is different, it is about ordinary people who are just trying to survive the occupation, to keep body and soul together.
The prologue hints at a family disgrace that has been kept secret for forty years and it was, in fact, inspired by real events that happened to the family of the author’s husband.
Introducing the Aubry family
The novel is about the Aubry family and starts in 1919 with Caroline and Severine’s childhood, first in a tiny hamlet and then when the girls’ parents become the caretaker and the gardener for the Countess Gisèle de Roquemaurel, living on the chateau’s estate in Sorignac, in the Périgord region.
Caroline the older sister is responsible and level headed, but Severine “always does exactly what she wants”. The childless countess becomes Severine’s Pygmalion, transforming her into an accomplished pianist and pseudo bourgeoise. This opens a world of opportunity to the young woman, but she is disapproved of by most of the locals, who think she has become a snob, “a class enemy”. The only exception is Paul, the doctor’s son, Severine’s best friend and soul mate.
The Paris move
In 1928, the family moves to Paris to take up a concierge’s job and it is here that Severine meets her future husband, Antoine, an older man with right-wing politics, who runs the family jewelry business. After a long courtship, they get married in 1935, enjoying a lavish reception hosted by the countess, at the chateau in Sorignac, which further fuels the locals’ dislike of Severine. She is blind to the reactions she provokes and her only ambition is to settle down in comfort and have children, but Antoine appears reluctant to start a family, giving week excuses.
When Paris is occupied by the German forces in 1940, daily life for most Parisians is reduced to the search for food and keeping a low profile. Throughout the novel, the author adds historical facts to the intrigue that seamlessly enrich the narrative. We learn for example that the Germans kept food rations at half the normal calories required and controlled the coal industry. The French were starving, cold and torn between rival politics. In the same family, some might support the Vichy government and collaborating with the occupying army, while others were fiercely opposed and helping the Résistance.
Harriet Welty Rochefort’s previous books are non-fiction and the writing style of this novel does show a certain lack of experience in the literary genre. I am personally not a fan of the flashbacks and flashforwards that are supposed to build suspense.
The final transgression
The Final Transgression of the title is revealed as the story reaches its dénouement, although for me it may refer to one or more events and actions of different characters – none of them good.
This novel is a tour de force of historical fiction at its best, a complex story of the loves, war and politics of ordinary people that is both instructive and moving.
It is vital that we continue to read books about wars, like Final Transgression, lest we forget.
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