Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Women witnessing WWII


The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton


Near the end of When World War II, journalists and photojournalists from allied countries had only one thing on their minds - to be the first ones to document the victory of retaking Paris. Among them were women who braved life and limb to "make their careers" by achieving this feat. Meg Waite Clayton's latest novel follows two fictional women attempting to be the first journalists to chronicle this allied victory.

Okay, so I'm a sucker for books about women doing amazing things, or being strong and forthright during times when people expected them to be demure and pretty, in the background. This is exactly that type of book. Waite Clayton follows two women here - Olivia (aka Liv or Livvie) and Jane. These two women are very different. Olivia comes from privilege and money, while Jane is the daughter of a cook and servant to a wealthy family. Despite this, they find themselves together in France, Liv with her cameras and Jane with her typewriter, trying to cover what they hope will be the end of the war. 



One thing that struck me about this story was that Waite Clayton decided to invent two fictional characters for this novel, instead of fictionalizing real women who actually joined their male colleagues in chronicling these historical events. Of course, Waite Clayton does disburse quotes from both male and female journalists and photojournalists from this time into the text, as well as refer to them from time to time, but we hardly ever get to "meet" any of these real people inside her story. The disadvantage of doing this is that the story felt less connected to the reality of the events, if only somewhat. On the other hand, the advantage is that this freed Waite Clayton to expand her imagination to its fullest. {NOTE - see update below}

The question is, which one makes for a more compelling novel - something where the fiction imagines scenarios for real people using facts, or something where the facts of an era intertwine with fictional characters? The former requires much more research, since the author needs understand both the circumstances they're writing about, as well as the real-life people in the story - even when they're fictionalizing events meant to fill in the blanks of the records. The latter still requires some research, but the author can delve more into creating their characters while allowing them do things that no real historical person actually did. As far as I'm concerned, I think I prefer the former.

However, even though she employed the latter, I believe that Waite Clayton did a truly lovely job with this novel. She created extremely sympathetic characters and placed them into a plot that was both complex and realistic enough to make us anxious to read on to see what happened to them. Her straightforward style has just the right amounts of imagery to help the reader feel connected to the places and events, without feeling overwhelmed. In fact, some of the scenes are amazingly vivid and realistic, but thankfully, they stop just short of being gory. Most importantly, all these elements connect carefully to make the overall feel of this book both three dimensional and honest. For all this, I think I can easily recommend this novel with a strong rating of four and a half out of five stars. 


UPDATE: You will see in the comments below one from the author. She wrote:
The answer to why fictional characters is that I wanted to be able to collect a lot of different experiences from a lot of different journalists, and share the most compelling in one story. Quite sure I did far more research on this one than I would have needed to do to deliver the story of any one of the journalists mentioned in the front, for which the novel is definitely meant to be an homage. 
My reply to this is - excellent point! It didn't occur to me that Waite Clayton used many real women, and then made them into composites to develop these two characters. I therefore stand corrected. This type of approach certainly needs as much, if not more research than just designing totally fictional characters and placing them into real, historic situations.  Thank you, Meg, for that clarification.


"The Race for Paris" by Meg Waite Clayton published by Harper, released August 2015 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you.