Fresnes Prison, 1940: Margot Bisset, a former maid from the Riviera, finds herself in a prison cell with writer and French Resistance fighter, Josephine Murant. Together, they are transferred to a work camp in Germany, where the secrets they share will bind them for generations to come.
Present-day Paris: Evie Black lives above her botanical bookshop with her teenage son, Hugo. Nursing a broken heart, Evie receives an unexpected letter; she clutches at an opportunity to spend a magical summer with Hugo on the Cote d’Azur.
It’s here, on the Riviera, that the past envelops them and Evie attempts to unravel the official story of a famous novelist. If she succeeds, a murder from a lifetime ago may be solved.
I don’t think it is news to anyone here that I love historical fiction books that feature female friendship and write women back into major events in our history (often World War II), so of course The French Gift was squarely on my radar as soon as it was announced. I have also previously read Kirsty Manning’s The Jade Lily (I was actually lucky enough to go to an event for the launch of that one and hear her talk about her research and process for writing – you can read a bit about it here) which only made me more keen to get this one in my hands (and eyes).
I wasn’t disappointed! Manning creates a beautiful story across 80 years of love and loss and friendship and strength, which is gripping from the very first scene. I have to admit that I had a bit of an inkling of where parts of the story were headed as I read, but this didn’t make the journey of reading it any less enjoyable.
Almost immediately on ‘meeting’ them in the book I felt invested in the stories of all three main female protagonists in this one – modern day Evie as well as Margot and Josephine in the 1940s. I think this connection as well as the way the story unfolds back and forth across time – and the way we are discovering more about Margot at the same time as Evie does, made this one a compelling read. I really found it hard to put down because i needed to know what was going to happen to the women next.
Manning tackles some really heavy themes and topics, as you might expect from a story set in the midst of a war, including (but not limited to) execution, torture, sexual assault, attempted suicide, and descriptions the horrific conditions of forced labor camps in Nazi Germany. Manning manages to explore all of this in a way that is both sensitive and retains some hope, with (though it sounds weird) flashes of humour that speak to the strong spirits of the women about whom she writes. As I was reading I found myself having to resist googling to find out more about the resistance and work camps, as I knew this one was inspired by a true story.
Evie’s story was less tense than the segments of the book set during wartime, which is not to say that she didn’t have her own heartbreak and grief having unexpectedly lost her husband and seeing her son go through that on the verge of adulthood. I felt like the chapters about Evie, though often sad, were gentler than the others, and I thought the way that she is stepping towards what might be the start of something new and hopeful offered a great contrast to the heavier chapters.
I think this will be a great read for fellow lovers of historical fiction. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read it or plan too.
Big thanks to the team at Allen and Unwin for sending me a free copy to read and review!
The French Gift by Kirsty Manning
Out now from Allen and Unwin.
Source: Free review copy sent to me by Allen and Unwin (thank you!). All views are my own.
Category: Historical fiction, women’s friendship, WWII.
The French Gift on Goodreads
Find Kirsty Manning online here
My review of The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning