Catherine McCullagh – Secrets and Showgirls

Big Sky Publishing, Australia, 2021

Catherine McCullagh’s fictionalised history joins a swathe of current works about the WW2 European experience under the Nazis. Whilst set in a Paris cabaret, Le Prix d’Amour, it interests itself largely with how the ‘normal citizen’ coped with the many privations and difficulties of Vichy France, at the time of the German Occupation and then under its total control.

Barbie talks to Catherine McCullagh about Secrets and Showgirls

Peopled with colourful characters, as we might expect of a Parisian cabaret in the 1940s, the book depicts a complex weave of everyday struggles and the exotic night life of the ragtag group in the employ of the kindly Monsieur Maurice.

While the showgirls and other performers must maintain the gaiety expected of Paris by their German masters, the industrious Madame Gloria who runs their boarding house, must scrape and scramble to find food supplies. M. Maurice is handsomely provided with alcohol for the cabaret and champagne flows, but Mme Gloria is creating dishes from guinea pigs, vegetable scraps and the slim pickings of the food ration queues.

Added to the constant shortages of coal, medicines and food is the perpetual need to look over one’s shoulder – nobody can be trusted, it seems in a world where human life is so little valued and where compromises must be made daily for survival. The black market keeps people alive and supplies everything from the required identity papers to places to hide from the ever-searching German troops and French police. And yet, in time, resistance emerges, and as we know, triumphs with help from many quarters.

What the author has brought in this book is not only another layer of understanding of our twentieth century European history, but a fascinating study in human psychology. How do people behave in such circumstances? How is morality weighed? What is the price of loyalty and courage?

Catherine McCullagh is clearly an author fascinated by people; her characters are well developed and sympathetically drawn. They carry the tale through a darkness relieved on many occasions by humour. Feats of daring are interspersed with moments of hilarity as we follow the exploits of the showgirls, their conspiratorial colleagues who are Catholic nuns, and the supporting team of Bolsheviks, chancers, Napoleon the black marketeer, The Resistance, the neighbours, the fugitives, assorted German clients of the cabaret, and the downright wicked.

At 400 pages, this is not an inconsiderable novel, but it rewards the reader with both insightful historical information and an insistence that we question our own character. Do we sit in judgement on the past or do we place ourselves there in an effort to understand the inexplicable and unforgiveable? Catherine McCullagh invites us to do the latter as true scholars of humankind. There are romps along the way, but the weight of self-questioning is what remained with me.

Thank you to Big Sky Publishing for the review copy and to Catherine McCullagh for such a thought provoking conversation.