Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
On first reading the prologue to this book I was immediately struck by similarities between this cast of characters and that of an earlier novel by the same author, The Perfumer’s Secret. Yes, one was about perfume and the other champagne but the setting in Europe, family dynamics, brothers vying for the love of the same girl and war being declared straight after a marriage appeared to be similar. But this latest book, The Champagne War, has its own story to tell.
This is a story about the horrors of life in the trenches in Belgium and then later in Northern France, during World War One, highlighting the use of gas as a weapon. It is also a story of how the families of those who bravely went to war were impacted. This is a story of contrasts. There are the contrasting personalities between brothers and between life in the trenches and life in the towns surrounded by war that are determined to carry on with life even if the people have to take their lives underground into an upside-down existence (72). The women in Northern France were still producing hundreds of thousands of bottles of champagne through the war. It is a story about soldiers in the trenches and in the towns where they are overwhelmed by ‘so much kindness after so much terror’ (180).
The book contrasts the towns of Reims and Éspernay during this time of war. Éspernay was like ‘a picture-book world’ (189). It had not been touched by almost four years of war on its doorstep, while in Reims ‘no street had been left intact, (and) its magnificent cathedral (had become) a broken giant, stooped and smashed’ (254). All that was left standing were the lamp posts. ‘While eastern France exploded, burned, fell over, Éspernay looked like a beautiful girl enjoying her first adult summer’ (254).
The author also highlights the contrast in characteristics of the grapes which determine the unique champagne experience. Champagne has been referred to as a ‘holy trinity of grapes’ (249) – pinot noir for strength (body), chardonnay for its charisma or delicacy, and meunier, which is ‘resistant to cold weather (and) brings a sort of vivacious quality, with a delicious fruitiness and flexibility to the flavour’ (248).
The contrasts between the living conditions in Germany and the new living conditions in Switzerland for prisoners and the contrasts yet similarities between the fighting trenches and the crayères which hold the bottles of champagne add a richness to the reading.
It is obvious from reading the descriptions in this author’s novels that much research has been undertaken as a prelude to the writing process. The details of the fighting in World War One are personal, from the experience of the main characters. The impact of this war on the civilians in the country is also personal which makes the reading more intimate. These people are real, and we feel their emotions. The detail of descriptions of the Opera House in Paris (87), the countryside where the grapes are grown, the horrific conditions in the trenches and the various types of gas used as weapons in this war, as well as the history of various towns and her intimate knowledge of the champagne industry are testament to this research.
The novel is divided into two parts with a prologue which takes the reader back to 1910 and a devastating flood which took many lives in Paris and how this affected the famous champagne making family of Sophie Delancré. Part One begins in Ypres, Belgium in April 1915 then Éspernay, France, later that same year where Sophie learns that her husband, Jerome, has succumbed to the war. Chapter three takes the reader back to Ypres in 1917 where we are introduced to English Captain Charlie Nash. The following storyline takes place in 1918.
In Part Two, the reader is transported to Heidelberg, in June 1918 where a German prisoner is acting as interpreter. He does not know his name or why a cork found in his pocket seems so important. There is talk of some prisoners being transferred to Switzerland. The rest of the story switches between Switzerland, Paris and Éspernay.
Sophie needs proof that her husband is really dead. Her brother-in-law, Louis, is hovering in the background. ‘Jerome had stolen Sophie Delancré from under his nose four years ago and he wasn’t going to let Jerome’s ever-present ghost to steal a second opportunity for Louis to have Sophie as his wife and get his hands on her wealth (121). For now, he is prepared to give her time. But later in the story, Sophie becomes intrigued by an English captain who had been rescued near Reims.
This book is beautifully written with its vivid descriptions and metaphors. It contains personal introspections, despair, hope, new understanding, reawakening of emotions as well as determination. This novel provides a rich journey through history and into the world of champagne making. A wonderful read.
By Fiona McIntosh
Penguin Random House Australia