Reviewed by Ian Lipke
This is a beautiful book. Through the magic of Michelle Wright’s mind, I was entranced once again by the beauty of Paris as I first witnessed it a few years ago. So many of the sights that are Paris surface with renewed vigour in my memory when I take up Michelle Wright’s beautiful prose. The book contains a tale about war, but that is not what remains. The story of militant aggression, the defiance of resistance are still present when the last page is turned, but after a few days of closing that final page, characters Lucie and Aline, Simone and Margot, merge as indistinguishable. As for Robert and Emil, and the ‘villain’ Gerard, who were never drawn with definitiveness in the first place, their living in memory was never going to happen.
Wright’s interest lies in the perfection that fine writing can bring to scenes in which actions of mankind can be placed. This means that plot is not as important as it most often is in tales of danger and derring-do. Characters exist as if they are a necessary component. World War 2 is raging, Paris is attacked and, despite determined defence, falls to Nazi power. The Germans have conquered, yet only short snippets reveal their depredations and character. One of the memorable moments is that of a defeated German soldier, drunk, disillusioned and frightened, who kills a swan, only to find his victim stolen by starving French children.
Who can forget a scene such as this?
As she stood back up, the snow began to fall again, but lightly, in big soft flakes that spiralled as they fell. A few feet away, a stray dog sniffed at the base of a lamppost, then limped off through the snow, its paws leaving a trail of dark blue dots. Lucie…held her breath and listened to the city empty of its people, freed from the violent presence of humanity, a landscape momentarily at peace. (120)
This is precision writing. The snow spiralled, the dog carried out an act we have all witnessed, his paws leave a trail that is described with the accuracy of a scientist. Encompassing these individual acts is a comforting silence that diminishes man’s violent struggles into an aberration, an irritant of peace.
Wright expends more energy on, and develops more rounded representations of, her female characters, to the detriment of the males. It is an accurate comment to say that her interest does not lie with the male characters. As with many contemporary women writers, Wright has an unacknowledged drive to ‘even the score’, to allocate more time and effort to females in a belief that this will somehow makeup for the effacement of women in past decades. Such a stance is without malice, and with Wright is no more than a wrinkle reflecting contemporary feminism.
The book is called Small Acts of Defiance, the emphasis being on the word ‘small’. A large percentage of the elements of the story – the sight of a flowering bush, the scent carried on a gentle breeze. Such a momentous event as the rape of Paris sees the heavy shelling and the capture of the city… not ignored, but not glorified either. The fall of France and the appointment of a Vichy government are reported and left at that. The focus is kept squarely on Lucie and her interactions with her few friends. That this is a story of a young girl growing to maturity in a foreign land is not at all hidden from the reader. Her youthfulness and the decisions she makes, quixotic as some of them are, add to the charm of the telling.
The book is an absolute delight.
Small Acts of Defiance
by Michelle Wright
Allen & Unwin