By Deborah O’Brien
The French proverb, ‘Nothing weighs more than a secret’, recurs like a musical theme in the life of Camille Dupré. Secrets intrigue and tantalise Camille from childhood, until she too becomes the keeper of secrets, her own and those of others. The lives of others hang in the balance, their secrets precious to hold and perilous to reveal.
Camille’s childhood memories are stored in the cocoon spun by her loving family, sprung from the fertile earth of their farm in the Languedoc region of Southern France, and harmonised by the rhythm of the seasons. Set in the aftermath of the Great War, the Dupré family enjoy the simple pleasures of a peaceful rural life. The village and local parish church provide an anchor for their world, with memories of a time of uncertainty fading but not forgotten.
Camille and her taciturn younger brother Claude are accustomed to the regular arrivals in their home of student boarders. They accept the inconvenience as they know their parents need this extra income in case frost or floods ruin their father’s vines. Camille resents their presumption that she is a servant to the students, and reluctantly goes with her father to collect the latest arrival from the railway station. Eleven-year-old Camille begins to see her future unfold in daydreams based upon the glamour of her cinema idols when the new handsome Bavarian boarder, Kurt Müller, comes to study French at nearby Montpellier University.
Kurt’s gentle ways, his quiet eagerness to learn the language and culture of his hosts, and his perfect manners secure his place as a welcome guest in the Dupré home. He and Camille forge a bond over a love of literature and agree when time permits to teach each other their native language. Camille will assist with French idiom while Kurt will teach her German – out of hearing of her mother who cannot forget the horrors inflicted by the ‘Boche’. Camille is indignant when she realises Kurt regards her as a child, and begins to realise that secrets hold power to help as well as to harm.
Camille’s story is presented through chapters of alternating time periods which are helpfully indicated by O’Brien’s use of chapter colour and tense. Camille’s carefree childhood in the 1930s is in stark contrast to the surreal suspension of ordinary life dictated by the demands of the wartime occupying forces in 1940s Vichy France. O’Brien skilfully creates a continuum of character development which allows the reader to readily differentiate between the child and the adult Camille. The past tense of little Camille’s world is a poignant reminder of what has been lost and can only be accessed through memory, while the present tense of Camille as a young woman allows for the possibility of a better future following an unsettled and uncertain time under Nazi occupation. Her future is not yet written, and her potential not yet realised.
At 22 years old Camille’s dreams of becoming a screen star like her cinema idol Clara Bow have long faded. Now junior librarian in Montpellier, Camille’s duties include the removal, reluctantly, of books by authors placed on the Nazi prohibited index. Her world has shrunk to the confines of her workplace at the town library and her rural family home, with farm produce commandeered and family unity threatened by unresolved tension. Like their fellow citizens, Camille’s family has had to accept the imposition of a curfew, food shortages and curtailment of normal life under this wartime regime. Camille feels assailed by the inexorable encroachment of outside forces upon her nation, and upon herself as an individual.
When Kurt Müller unexpectedly reenters Camille’s life, the Nazi uniform he wears creates fear but also ignites her curiosity. She realises that his impeccable use of the French language is now a weapon able to be used against her people, while her skills in German remain untested. Will he remember the child she was, or feel attraction to the independent young woman she has become? Both alternatives cause her heart to ache but when a letter arrives which threatens to tear her family apart, Camille must act decisively.
Camille and Claude both yearn for a new reality, putting their family at risk and dividing loyalties. Danger mounts and Camille must perform the role of her lifetime to keep secrets safe and malevolent forces at bay. Terror and desire run in equal parts through her veins because the consequences of her decisions have life and death implications-but who can she trust?
Deborah O’Brien has generously gifted Camille Dupré to readers at a time when our world is again facing uncertainty and confusion. The parallels which exist between adult Camille’s world and our 2020 pandemic are unintentional but profound. Concerns over the boundaries between individual and communal responsibility continue to be contentious, whether the context relates to collaborators, resistance fighters or social distancing. Normal life has been suspended in both worlds, yet ‘business as usual’ must continue. Authority figures at home and abroad issue instructions, urging compliance as ‘We’re all in this together’. But who do we trust , and what will the world look like afterwards?
In Camille’s world, love is the constant which unites and heals. As a child and as an adult, Camille understands the sustaining and restorative power of love and the vital role trust plays in all relationships. In this cleverly crafted and meticulously researched novel O’Brien has created a story of survival which demonstrates the power of literature to transcend boundaries of place and time. Camille Dupré stimulates the imagination, satisfies the heart and provokes contemplation of a brave new world.
Deborah O’Brien continues to demonstrate her mastery of historical fiction, recreating Camille’s world in the South of France under Nazi occupation as skilfully as the diverse places, times and characters readers all over the world have discovered and enjoyed in her other books. Check out our reviews of The Rarest Thing and The Trivia Man for your next books to read, after Camille Dupré.
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