I have just finished reading “La grande patience II: celui qui voulait voir la mer” by Bernard Clavel. It is the first book in French which has kept me completely absorbed from beginning to end. It is set in the early days of World War 2 and it is written from the point of view of “la mère Dubois”. Her husband is a retired baker, both are getting old and neither has very good health. They are waiting for the return of their son Julien, who has just finished his baker’s apprenticeship. The war is very distant and the story concerns itself a great deal with the simple details of the parent’s lives. However, with the arrival of May 1940, the news becomes more frightening and the roads become crowded with refugees fleeing the advance of the German army. Finally, they persuade their son to join the exodus as he is nearing the age for military service and they fear what the Germans might do to young men. The rest of the story is then concerned with events whilst they await his return.
There is very little actual contact between the parents and the Germans who temporarily hold the town, prior to their withdrawal as the town is to be in the “free” zone of France. No fighting takes place in the town, merely some preparations in case of air raids. From an initial picture of the minutiae of life of a retired couple in a quiet town, the tension in the story builds from the news of the war, fears of air raids, contact with refugees passing through the town and doubts as to whether or not the son should join the evacuation. After Julien leaves, the story is concerned with the immediate struggle for survival during a brief period of occupation by the German army and then their fears for the safety of Julien until he finally returns – four days later than necessary because Julien decided to visit the nearby coast as he has never seen the sea!
For me, the fascination of the book lies in the detailed picture that it draws of civilian life during this period, the fears and hopes of ordinary people, caught up in events beyond their control. It has whetted my appetite for reading more by this author!