The German Occupation of the Channel Islands continues to provide rich narrative pickings for local authors, and in this novel by Guernseyman Peter Lihou we are once more transported back to occupied nineteen-forties waters. Our hero is young fisherman Tom le Breton, whom we first encounter deftly evading German patrols in his boat The Flying Fish. Within pages he takes shelter on nearby island Alderney, where he sets about helping a young Jewish girl – the
eponymous Rachel – escape from the labour camp in which she has been living,
Rachel’s Shoe divides roughly into two sections, with the first half presenting a nautical adventure tale following Tom and his family as they attempt to conceal Rachel from the German occupying forces. Rachel’s initial rescue from the camp – exploding mines and all – forms a suitably exciting introduction to the novel, and the subsequent development of her relationship with Tom forms a strong emotional thread leading us up to her eventual escape and the novel’s first denouement.
Fast forward to the start of the seventies (via Rachel’s Hollywoodesque return), where the now Mr and Mrs le Breton are attracting some unwelcome attention from a nefarious clique of Germans intent on securing shareholding rights to Rachel’s parents’ business, the existence of which Rachel has remained wholly unaware. It appears that the account details were hidden somewhere by Rachel’s mother before her daughter was taken from her – but where?
Cue the shoe. It’s a neat structural device, and one that binds the two parts of the novel tidily together. The shift from wartime adventure to a more modern thriller approach is a welcome one, and the concluding chapters succeed in energising the novel anew. The climax is suitably cathartic, with some well-handled character rounding of the villainous Freddy and his lackeys.
Lihou’s style is solid and succinct; he writes with an admirable clarity of expression, and the roving narrative eye provides generous access to the thoughts and motivations of several of the novel’s key players. Historical detail is accurate though light enough to avoid detracting from the interplay of characters and the pace of the plot as a whole.
Rachel’s Shoe is in turn charming, touching and possessing a definite edge. I look forward to reading more from Lihou and would recommend the Guernseyman’s work to anyone. (And that’s coming from a Bean.)