Book review: When the Sky Fell Apart by Caroline Lea

Jersey... the jewelled, windswept Channel Island of rugged coasts, sparkling seas and sandy bays, and the only part of Britain to fall under the terrifying Nazi jackboot.
When the Sky Fell Apart byCaroline LeaWhen the Sky Fell Apart byCaroline Lea
When the Sky Fell Apart byCaroline Lea

Within weeks of a deadly bombing raid on the harbour at St Helier in June 1940, over 12,000 German troops had landed on Jersey’s beaches. And with one enemy soldier for every four islanders, fear soon became a part of everyday life as the island was transformed into an impregnable fortress of towers, bunkers and guns.

So what was it like to Iive through the dark days of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands? And how did the inhabitants cope with five years of fear, oppression and constant danger?

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Born and raised in Jersey, Caroline Lea knows just how deep runs the islanders’ consciousness of their wartime ordeal, and how painful are the scars that remain on both the visible landscape and within their shared psyche.

In her beautiful, richly woven and atmospheric debut novel, Lea traces Jersey's frightening and fascinating wartime history whilst delivering an elegiac and engrossing tale of love, hardship, resilience, fortitude and friendship.

That first terrifying air attack changes everything for the insulated islanders. For ten-year-old Claudine, a clever child neglected by her distracted mother, it means a re-education under German rule in a classroom bedecked with pictures of Hitler.

And with her father fighting overseas and her mother struggling to cope, lonely Claudine befriends one of the soldiers and inadvertently introduces a sinister influence into her home with devastating consequences.

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For Maurice, a local fisherman, the Occupation means protecting his sick wife Marthe at all costs, even if it endangers his own life. Reduced to a pitiful and helpless state by a devastating hereditary disease, Marthe’s life would have no value to the Nazis.

Forty-nine-year-old widow Edith is Jersey's unofficial homeopath and a home-grown Jèrriais rooted to the soil of the island.

Some locals think Edith has ‘the devil's magic’ in her fingers but, whether her medicinal skills are deemed good or bad, even she can’t save everyone, no matter how hard she tries.

And as for English doctor Tim Carter, a kindly, caring but cautious man who carefully guards his past, the arrival of the brutal German Commandant spells disaster when he becomes the subject of a terrifying regime that causes the locals to brand him a traitor, unaware of the torment he suffers in an effort to save them.

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As each of them is tested in the horrifying pressure cooker of the Occupation, they are sustained by the warmth of their connection but then an unforeseen event forces them into the deadliest danger...

Through the experiences and ordeals of four very different people, When the Sky Fell Apart explores how human beings find solace and strength in the most unlikely and extraordinary friendships.

Lea's evocation of an island in the iron grip of a ruthless enemy is cleverly and sensitively portrayed, allowing the reader to gain a powerful insight into the grim realities of the Occupation.

Writing with the assurance and style of a seasoned author, Lea creates a moving and thoughtful contemplation of both man's humanity and inhumanity, and delivers a gripping novel packed with passion, tensions and heartbreak.

An exciting and talented new voice in the world of literary fiction...

(Text Publishing, paperback, £10.99)

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