Title: Small Acts of Defiance
Author: Michelle Wright
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 1st June 2021
Synopsis: The remarkable debut novel from acclaimed prize-winning short fiction writer Michelle Wright, author of Fine.
‘A beautifully intimate portrait that celebrates the courage and resilience of the human spirit.’ Jane Harper, author of The Survivors
‘Historical fiction of the highest order … An engrossing, deeply-satisfying read, one of the year’s outstanding, not-to-be missed debuts. ‘ Melissa Ashley, author of The Birdman’s Wife
‘A powerful and elegantly wrought story of women’s resistance. This is required reading for our times.’ Myfanwy Jones, author of Leap
‘. . . a gripping, meticulously researched novel, and a nuanced, poetic and deeply serious exploration of the difference that individual choices can make in a society crumbling physically and morally. Wright recreates occupied Paris with immediacy and with melancholy tenderness . . . This is a book to savour and treasure.’ Lee Kofman, author of Imperfect
May, 1940: After a bitter tragedy, young Australian woman Lucie and her French mother Yvonne are forced to leave home and seek help from the only family they have left-Lucie’s uncle, Gerard.
As the Second World War engulfs Europe, the two women find themselves trapped in German-occupied Paris, sharing a cramped apartment with the authoritarian Gerard and his extremist views.
Drawing upon her artistic talents, Lucie risks her own safety to engage in small acts of defiance against the occupying forces and the collaborationist French regime, where the authorities reward French citizens for denouncing so-called ‘traitors’ in their community.
Faced with the escalating brutality of anti-Jewish measures, and the indifference of so many of her fellow Parisians, Lucie must decide how far she will go to defend the rights of others.
After a tragedy befalls Lucie and her mother in Australia in 1940, they are forced to return to Paris during World War Two as the German forces encroach upon France and the Nazis begin to force their rules and regulations upon the citizens of France, starting with rations and moving towards the anti-Jewish laws that marched across Europe and saw many people turn in Jews, and anyone else that the Nazis deemed unAryan to save themselves. When she arrives in Paris with her mother Yvonne, they go to live with Yvonne’s brother, Gérard. Whilst out one day, Lucie meets Aline, a young Jewish woman, and she becomes fast friends with Aline, her mother Simone and grandfather Samuel, and Margot, a fellow Australian running the art shop that Lucie paints postcards for. Together, they begin what they call small acts of defiance – showing the German occupiers that they will not bend to the will of the oppressor, even as more laws encroaching on the freedoms of the Jewish population, and Gérard’s growing authoritarianism that spurs Lucie into using her artistic talents to help the resistance efforts, and later it seems, she could be drawn into more dangerous acts that see her struggle through the years of occupation, contrasting the complacency and acceptance of most people with the resistance of others – however small or big the acts of resistance are. Whatever they do sends a message, it seems, and is divisive – those who see the Jews and those from the East as a threat are open about it, and Gérard is one of them, and is determined to quash any inclination Lucie has to try and understand the situation and act. Or there are those who act openly, whilst others work behind the scenes, and sometimes, there is conflict here with what each side expects of the other side – what they demand of them.
Like many books set in World War Two that I have read, this is set in France, and looks at what it was like under the occupation. Each book looks at the situation through a specific set of characters and their individual stories and experiences, showing that there was no singular experience for anyone, and that there were those who did what they could to stand with Jews in the light of the anti-Jewish laws, who resisted and worked within the system and rules, or flouted some of these rules to resist. It is the kind of book that shows there are different kinds of bravery, cowardice and deception, and what it means and what happens when these betrayals are uncovered. The final years of the war seem to happen very quickly, but this worked within the context as the bulk of 1940-1943 focused on the resistance efforts, whilst 1944-1945 was about the final years, and the inevitable fall of the German occupiers and the liberation of Paris, and the historical context of how Lucie and Yvonne cope throughout the years.
The contrast of Australian Lucie against those who live in Paris worked well to illustrate what it is like to feel like you don’t belong. The friendship between Lucie and Aline bolstered this. Both have French heritage, but one grew up in Australia, and is experiencing a kind of culture shock and the other, Aline, is Jewish and is being made to feel like she doesn’t belong. I felt that this was the main way that they understood each other, despite any other differences in opinions, and was what drove their bond and pulled them together. It was delightful to read about a friendship blossoming and showing a different kind if love and loyalty. It showed that propaganda is a powerful tool to change opinion, but even more powerful is unity and diversity – and working together for a better world in the face of adversity. These powerful stories ring true in so many ways, and they also gives readers a chance to understand what it must have been like, and to feel the fear and uncertainty. I certainly did and this made it a compelling read that I felt I could not put down at times.
War is not gentle, and Michelle did not shy away from the horrors and realities of what her characters and the people at the time would have experienced. This is a brutal way of telling a story, but necessary to capture history and make contemporary readers understand and grasp what these people went through and how easily it all happened then and could happen again. It is a book that we should all read, and that shows that even small acts of defiance in the background can make a difference.