By John Andrews
To start the New Year with a bang I am pleased to offer a real treat that coincidentally has been voted one of the best 20 reads of the decade, so we are in safe hands.
A Question of Loyalties, by Allan Massie and published by Canongate Publishing, is nothing short of a masterpiece of clear well-researched storytelling.
Etienne de Balafre, the product of an English mother and a French father, returns to post-war France to unravel the tangled history of his own father, Lucien de Balafre. Initially Etienne is reluctant to delve into the past, but as he reads through his father’s papers and journals in their large decaying Chateau one question keeps returning: was his father a patriot who served his country as best he could in challenging times, or a treacherous collaborator in the Vichy government of Marshall Phillipe Petain?
The book asks as many questions of the reader as it answers, as we are taken on a journey with Lucien, rife with anguish of hindsight and the irony of circumstance.
The ties between father and son, Lucien and his brother Armand are explored in depth, all set against the pains of love and duty in a period of European history that is still characterised by wilful denial and hatred.
When the Germans were finally evicted from France in 1944 by the Allies many of those associated with the authoritarian Vichy state suffered retribution and were labelled traitors. Their legacy, known as the Vichy syndrome, is one of shame and guilt, coupled with ambiguity and laced with controversy. The questions persist to this day: to what extent were the supporters of the Vichy government complicit with the Germans? Did they have any idea of the atrocities carried out in Hitler’s name throughout France, or was their prime concern the preservation of France, whatever the cost?
All this and more is explored through the experiences of the de Balafre family, their wives, lovers and informers, in prose that is full of scholarship and excitement.
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