Kate Thompson – The Wartime Book Club

Published by Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 2024 (an Hachette UK company)
Cover design Becky Gibbery
Cover photographs Lauren Rautenbach/Arcangel; Shutterstock

This is the sort of book that is often described as a ‘sweeping historical romance’. For me, however, what is remarkable about this excellent book is the way the author helps us to understand the intensity and horror of Occupation.

Barbie talks to Kate Thompson about The Wartime Book Club

The history of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands in World War II began to find voice in popular literature and film with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Kate Thompson’s book is set on the island of Jersey between 1940 and 1995. Its predecessor The Little Wartime Library shares this setting.

While the human heroes and heroines of the book, most of them based on real people from the time, do have astonishing tales of courage, resilience, friendship and ingenuity to tell, books are without doubt the star of the show. The author refers to banned books at the beginning of the war-period chapters, cogent evidence of the power of the written word.

When repressive regimes ban books and stifle freedom of the press, they are acknowledging the importance of the written word and the stories, real and fictional, that they convey. This is homage to knowledge and thought.

The people of Jersey flocked to the book club as a place to meet and express solidarity, to share thoughts (albeit under the watchful eye of their German supervisor) and support one another emotionally and practically. Librarian Grace in concert with her friend Bea, a postal worker, enables a quiet resistance in circumstances where the overt is not possible.

Much of the plot of this story is taken from real events, gleaned through the author’s meticulous research on the island and her conversations with locals who shared their memories and memorabilia with her in various ways. The detailed and highly interesting information section at the end of this book, in which Kate shows us her research process and which includes many source documents and photos, was one of its great pleasures for me.

The questions of morality which inevitably arise in books of this sort were also potent throughout. The story itself is compulsive reading, but we pause to consider how we would act under such duress. Would the pressure of oppression cause us to be better or worse people?

From the safe distance of decades, it is easy for us to make hasty and ill-informed judgements about collaboration and fraternisation. These matters are delicately handled in this novel. The urge for vengeance on those seen to be traitors to the community is clear and understandable, but both of our heroines see the humanity of the soldiers sent without choice to fight on foreign soil.

The real story of the hidden poison pen letters and that of the stolen German letters home are a poignant reminder that both fighting sides of this war suffered along with the whole populations of their countries.

The Wartime Book Club is a perceptive work, respectful of the people of Jersey and their proud history, written from the inside view. The daily sufferings of the population under Occupation are understated in a very British way, (though the island does not necessarily see itself as British per se) told with the stoicism and phlegmatic tenor we have come to associate with wartime Britain.

And yes there are love stories, more than one, and not all happily of the ever after kind. There are also the love stories of life-long friendships, of love for books and libraries, for the book club that saved people’s sanity at times and for place. And there is in the research reference to the bigger human love we see in the celebrations of liberation attended by both Jersey islanders and Germans, notably not fiction.

Happily also, Kate Thompson has shared some travel tips for those tempted to visit the Channel Islands. This book will surely do that for its readers – it has for me.

Thank you to Hachette for my review copy and to Kate for a thoroughly enjoyable chat about this book, history and the power of stories.