It seems these days that World War II is the most popular era for historical fiction, with a new novel about some aspect of the war coming out nearly every month. In January we have two new World War II novels, each one looking at a different aspect of the war, and each one looking at it through the eyes of women doing more than just keeping the home fires burning and waiting for their men to return home.
The Light Over London, by Julia Kelly, follows a familiar pattern for modern historical novels, the modern day character learning about her counterpart in a past time, her life being illuminated in some way by the history she’s learning. Cara Hargraves is working for a gruff antiques dealer when she discovers an unfinished diary from World War II, with a picture of a young woman in uniform, at an estate sale. Reading the diary leads her to investigate the story behind it, and there we are in the second narrative of the book with 19 year old Louise Keene, living in Cornwall in 1941. Her ideas about her life and her future are upended when she meets Paul, a dashing RAF officer, stationed at a nearby base. His unit’s deployment leads Louise to look beyond her narrow life and become a Gunner Girl, a woman in the British army’s anti-aircraft unit, stationed in London during the Blitz. She takes pride in her ability to identify enemy planes, and in the accuracy of her calculations, leading the male gunners to shoot down the attacking aircraft, but of course life in London during this dangerous period is scary and filled with risks. She clings to the hope that she and Paul will be reunited after the war, but life is precarious during wartime and her real education in life and love is just beginning. There are parallels between the lives of the two women, and Cara is inspired by Louise’s story to investigate the war experiences of her own grandmother, who never spoke much about what she did in the war.
The protagonist of The Only Woman in the Room, by Marie Benedict, is a real person: Hedy Lamarr, and her story is incredible enough to seem more fitting for a novel than a biography. Her extraordinary beauty got her married to a prominent arms dealer in the early stages of the Third Reich, and probably protected her from being rounded up with other Jews and killed. As she and her husband moved in the highest social circles of the Nazis, she was continually underestimated, assumed to be a pretty airhead, but all the while she was paying attention to everything she heard about the highest level plans of the Third Reich. She disguised herself and made a daring escape from her husband’s castle, to emerge in Hollywood as a film star, but even that wasn’t the whole extent of her extraordinary life. She didn’t want to spend her time making money in movies when the war was raging, so she turned her scientific mind toward helping radio-controlled torpedoes avoid having their frequencies jammed, a technology that was later adopted by the U.S. Navy, and that still later became the basis for secure Wi-fi, Bluetooth and GPS.
Even if you consider yourself a World War II buff, there are undoubtedly things in these two novels that will be new to you, and if you have only a general knowledge of the war and how it affected non-combatants, you will find these two books fascinating.