Title: The French Gift
Author: Kirsty Manning
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 30th March 2021
Synopsis: A World War II story of female friendship, longing and sacrifice through war and loss, bringing together the present and the past.
‘Kirsty Manning has delivered yet again with this epic novel about women, love and heartbreak. With passion and sensitivity, Manning takes the reader on a journey that is near-impossible to tear yourself away from. Without a doubt her finest work. A triumph!’ Sally Hepworth, author of The Good Sister
A forgotten manuscript threatens to unravel the past …
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.
Inspired by a true story of iconic French Resistance fighter, Agnes Humbert, whose secret journal shed light on a little-known aspect of World War II, The French Gift will captivate readers from beginning to unforgettable end.
Kirsty Manning has a talent for taking little known historical stories and people, and weaving them into extraordinary historical fiction, often with a dual timeline in the present day. In The French Gift, she has used the true story of French Resistance fighter, Agnés Humbert as inspiration to craft her story about Josephine Murant and Margot Bisset, bringing history, mystery and crime together as she explores the divide between the upper and lower classes at the start of the war, which slowly gives way as women across the classes are imprisoned for various crimes by the Nazis.
Imprisoned in separate camps and prisons to the Jews, these women were still treated badly by the Nazis. They were forced to work in dangerous conditions, assaulted, dehumanised and killed. In this story, Josephine and Margot are both sent from Fresnes prison to a work camp, where they are forced to help make German uniforms. Margot, accused of murder, has had her sentence commuted to life imprisonment, becomes friends with Josephine. Both are determined to prove that Margot is innocent, and as time passes, they begin to share secrets and ambitions that will trickle down to affect generations to come. But Margot maintains her innocence – and this becomes as much a part of the story as the present-day plot with Josephine’s great-nephew, Hugo, and his mother, Evie.
Evie and Hugo arrive at Josephine’s Côte d’Azur mansion in 2020/2021 following her death, and soon find themselves uncovering the mystery of her hidden manuscript, the one novel that she never had published during her lifetime. Questions about as to why and where it is, and slowly, Evie uncovers several strands of a mystery from a lifetime ago, and voices that have for so long been silenced. Evie is driven to find out what has happened.
Kirsty Manning has set her contemporary, present day sections in a COVID free world on purpose – the lockdowns the world faced a year ago would not have allowed Evie and Hugo to take this journey, and she chose to do this deliberately. This is the second novel I’ve read that seems to have purposefully ignored the pandemic, eliminating it all together so the story can work as well as giving readers a much-needed reprieve from reminders of lockdowns and restrictions that come and go, and change all the time at the moment depending on where you live. I did enjoy reading about a 2020 without COVID, yet at the same time it felt strange to see them travelling about France without worrying about masks or sanitiser or checking in anywhere. Our new reality informs how we read these days, so whilst it does feel at odds with the way we are now living, there is also something refreshing and calming about it – the world that could have been had COVID not marched across the continents and countries, a quiet, faceless army that we are starting to fight back against.
The contrast of peace and war worked to show the differences in generations, but also, the way we have come to understand the world. And the way trauma influences us later in our lives. It certainly did for Josephine and her family, and it shows that even once you’ve come through the greatest adversity, sometimes it is easier to hide the truth and create your own truth, your own world and let some secrets stay hidden. Even from your family.
The beauty in this book is in the family and friends, and the uncovering of a mystery. There is a little bit of romance, but it is in the background, and allows the rest of the story to evolve and develop in a way that ensures the historical story and the family story the attention they deserve, in a way that is respectful, touching and evocative.
Another great book from Kirsty Manning.