Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Kirsty Manning’s latest offering was written during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in the hope of giving readers some respite from the numerous pandemic reports. Once again, this author has produced an informative and riveting story which, though fiction, draws its inspiration from little known pockets of history. At the conclusion of this fascinating story, she provides a list of selected sources for those inspired to do further research on incidents that have been raised in this work.
In the Author’s note, she tells the reader that she has tried to capture some of the resilience and inspiration of wartime women and to honour those who were forced to work in atrocious conditions and whose stories have been largely forgotten. In her writing, she also wishes to highlight how women through the generations have often served as the emotional ballast for their families and how trauma is passed and healed through generations. I believe she has achieved her goals extremely well in this novel.
Manning skilfully intertwines the lives of three strong women from two generations. The reader is first introduced to Margot Bisset, maid to one of ‘The Riviera Set’, who plans a (faux) murder for entertainment. However, it becomes a real murder and Margot is arrested and convicted. The year is 1939. In 1941, she is joined in her cell by Josephine Murant who has been convicted of working for the clandestine newsletter ‘Liberte’. In 1942, they are transported to Anrath prison inside Germany and forced to work under appalling conditions in the Phrix Rayon Factory, where those who managed to survive were scarred for life by the acid used in the process. Manning graphically describes the horrendous conditions of these factory workers yet also highlights the growing bond between these women.
In the present time, Evie Black receives a request for help from a Clement Tazi, a historian and documentary maker, who wishes to create a retrospective to World War 2 history featuring some of bestselling novelist Josephine Murant’s experiences. She had died at the age of 100 in 2019. Evie’s husband, Raph, had been handling his great aunt’s estate before suddenly dying from a brain aneurysm.
Kirsty Manning brings to life Paris, in the past and present, through the many gastronomical delights mentioned in her book. The contrast between life in pre- and post-World War 2 Paris is clearly stated as are the harsh punishments handed out during the Occupation years. But this is not a depressing book. The strength and resilience of these women is celebrated, and the storyline set in the present adds a positive perspective as they set about searching for an unpublished first manuscript of the best-selling author and in the process learn more and more about the woman they had known for so long yet had remained such a recluse to her many fans. There is also the heart-warming relationship between a widow and her teenage son, on the cusp of flying the coop, and the tentative deepening relationship between the widow and the historian.
Evie had come to discover Josephine’s past but ‘she’d been given an unexpected gift: the story of Margot Bisset. And just like those two courageous women, Evie had been given a chance to write a different story. She was ready to take it’ (305).
The title of Kirsty Manning’s book, The French Gift, refers to the title of the unpublished manuscript but it could equally refer to several other things within this novel. This I found interesting.
This Australian writer obviously has a passion for the little-known parts of history and enjoys weaving together strong women characters to help solve puzzles which were not resolved in their own time. This blending together of the past and the present seems to be a platform on which she successfully creates her storylines, which resonate with modern readers, highlighting how trauma and hope can travel through in equal parts.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
The French Gift
by Kirsty Manning
$ 32.99; 328pp