A Good Death : Elizabeth Ironside (2000)

Theo de Cazalle returns to his home in rural France in September 1944 following exile in London during the war. Instead of the joyous homecoming which he expected he finds that his wife, Ariane, has been denounced as a collaborator, her hair has been shaved and that his farm, Bonnemort, was occupied by the Germans – and on the day they left their commanding officer was found at Bonnemort with his throat cut. As his life falls apart Theo has to piece together what happened – why Ariane was denounced, whether his farm manager Henri was betrayed and led to his death, what really happened at Bonnemort during 1944.

Ironside’s narrative style is one of almost constantly shifting third person viewpoints. Theo, various villagers he interviews, Ariane and most substantially two young girls – Sabine, Theo’s daughter from his first marriage, and Rahel/Suzie a young Jewish girl whom Ariane takes in and disguises to save her from deportation. Events are seen and recounted from differing viewpoints (although Ironside never attempts a Nazi ‘voice’). In particular Rahel/Suzie becomes a more dominant voice the further the book progresses. This narrative mode has the advantage of retaining interest and obviously emphasises the complexity of events and their interpretation. This is necessary here as the basic questions of ‘what happened’ are, in fact, fairly simply resolved and certainly come as no surprise to the reader. The book works or fails in terms of the level of emotional engagement which one feels with the characters and the intellectual analysis which the shifting-narrative viewpoint allows .

On these questions I have to admit to being unsure on several levels. In the first place I think (and I am not wholly clear that this was the intention) that Ironside’s historical analysis is somewhat simplistic (not to mention heavily biased!); the Communist resistance are the bad guys where the Gaullist/nationalist resistance are the good guys. And in the context in which the book is set I am not at all sure that the attempted Nazi/Communist equation is not merely intellectually lazy but in bad taste. Beyond this however there is a certain sexualisation of the Nazi occupation, which is paralleled by the ways in which the children (especially Sabine) are brutalised at convent and school. There is an on-going current, sometimes explicit, of sado-masochism in the book. I would certainly not wish to suggest that these subjects should be taboo but once again I think that any writer who takes this on has to be extremely clear about what they are doing (in addition to which t his is ground which has been covered before).

In some ways A Good Death does make one reflect on the rights and wrongs of setting a book in this historical period. There should never be ‘no-go’ areas for writers or artists, but some areas do call for greater sensitivity than others. In terms of historical mysteries for instance, any approach will do for Ancient Rome from the wholly comic to the ultra-serious. But in terms of WW2 I am less sure. Where such books are set in Britain interesting questions can be asked and examined as to the social and political realities and changes which took place, the myths that were created and the extent to which they were myths and so on. When you move the setting to occupied Europe while there is obviously greater scope for imparting information, there are also, it seems to me, even more moral questions (because I am not suggesting these should be ignored where British-based books are concerned) which need to be asked. I reach no conclusions on this subject but raise the issue with my self as one which is worthy of consideration.

My attitude to the book was also changed by the fact that, quite co-incidentally, I went to see The Reader just after I had finished reading it. While The Reader addresses much more directly questions about responses to the Holocaust and is concerned with German rather than French society, it did bring home to me how the issues which Ironside is (to some extent) addressing in A Good Death can be treated with great moral (and imaginative) seriousness . The act of imagination required to deal with the issues raised by how people, how we, would react to living under Nazi occupation is an enormous one. A Good Death attempts to use a mystery story, in which the terms of the mystery are wide indeed (what happened in a course of events rather than ‘who killed x?’) to investigate and portray these issues. In the last analysis my judgement is that the book lacks the literary and intellectual weight to tackle the subjects which it raises. This is not to say that it does not pack consid erable emotional punch. Indeed it is certainly on this punch that the book rests as the ‘mystery’ as such is insubstantial. So coming back to my criteria it may be that while the book succeeds emotionally (though this is as always in such matters subjective) it fails to convince intellectually. But the book’s emotional impact is very largely one which could have been made in quiet different settings; and it is that which brings me back to my uneasiness about the use of this particular one. Still, whatever its failings, it can certainly be said to have made me think!

(March 2009)